The Towering Inferno for real: The story of the Joelma Building disaster.

Forty-one years ago today, on the morning of February 1, 1974, an air conditioner in a 12th-floor window of a high-rise building in São Paulo, Brazil called the Joelma Building–shown in the above photo from Google Earth–suffered a short circuit and emitted a spark. A small fire began. The fire was discovered at 8:50 AM but was already spreading rapidly. As word of the fire rippled through the building, the 756 people on the premises started bolting for the exits. But the fire was already spreading rapidly. With smoke billowing through the structure’s only escape stairwell, hundreds of people found themselves trapped many floors above the ground level. The horror that then played out in the 25-story building on Rua Santo Antonio was a real-life version of the famous disaster picture The Towering Inferno, except without the cheese factor–and very much without a happy ending. The disaster cost 179 people their lives.

If the Joelma Building had been specifically designed to kill people, it probably could not have been more efficient to accomplish that task. There were no fire alarms. There was no sprinkler system. There were no emergency lights. The only means of escape from the upper floors, excluding the elevators, was a single central stairwell. Furthermore, the entire interior of the building was decked with flammable materials–carpets, partitions, desks, furniture, ceiling tiles and curtains were all highly combustible. The air conditioner that started the fire had been installed to bypass the building’s main power system. With this many hazards present, it’s a wonder that the death toll wasn’t higher.

This frightening footage was taken as the Joelma Building burned. Warning: this video is difficult to watch in some places.

All of the Joelma Building’s serious defects worked to the disadvantage of those inside. The flammable furnishings meant that the building went up like a Roman candle–indeed, only 20 minutes after the fire started, the whole facade of the building was sheathed in flames. The one central stairwell became like a chimney flue, sucking up lethal smoke and heat and thus preventing people trapped on upper floors from getting down. Since they couldn’t go down, people went up instead, hoping to be rescued from the roof by helicopters. But there was no place on the roof of the Joelma Building to land a chopper. Still, the roof was safer than the interior which was soon a blazing funeral pyre.

The ferocious fire resulted in several heartbreaking real-life horror stories. Some residents–there were evidently both offices and residences in the building–were trapped on floors by smoke or flames, unable to go up to the roof or down to the ground. Desperate, they chose to jump. 40 people made this tragic choice and not a single one survived. The fire department realized that, although it was dangerous, evacuating people by elevator was one of the least bad of a slate of bad choices. After getting several groups out successfully, however, the elevators jammed–one of them with 13 people still trapped inside. These thirteen were literally cooked to death in a steel box, pounding the walls furiously as they died in one of the most horrifying ways imaginable.

The São Paulo fire department could make little dent in the flames. Within a few hours the fire subsided, but not as a result of any heroics; everything flammable in the building had already burnt and the fire simply ran out of fuel. Only then could authorities go inside and begin the grim task of seeing if anyone was still alive. The 170 who made it to the roof survived. But just as many again were dead from various causes. The 1974 Joelma Building fire was the worst skyscraper-related disaster in history until the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

joelma victims

Terrified residents of the Joelma Building desperately await rescue on the morning of February 1, 1974.

It usually takes a disaster like this to get designers thinking about safety issues and overcoming what seem like basic obvious defects, like the horrifying Cocoanut Grove fire in 1942 finally told people (duh!) that it’s generally a bad idea to have a revolving door as your only exit from a crowded room. The Brazil fire and building codes were updated after 1974 and more responsible ways of constructing high-rises came into use. The Joelma Building itself, despite its extensive damage, was reparable. It was closed for 4 years pending reconstruction, but remains today in essentially its original form, with of course the addition of better safety standards. Still, the disaster remains a stark reminder of the dangers of fire that still exist even in ultra-modern urban environments.

For years after the disaster, macabre fascination, superstition and myth have continued to surround the Joelma Building and its legacy. The story of the 13 people found in the elevator has had particular resonance. Because they were so badly burned they couldn’t be identified, the remains of the “13 Souls”–some burned so badly they were fused to the elevator walls–were buried together in a common grave. Many building residents and visitors have since 1974 reported hauntings and other paranormal events connected with the place. In a sad insult to the 179 real people who died here, the Joelma disaster became after 2001 something of a cause célèbre among deranged conspiracy buffs who believed that the September 11 attacks were some sort of “inside job”–they claimed the fact that the building did not collapse, while the World Trade Centers did, was some sort of evidence that the 9/11 attacks were staged, or some such rubbish. Notorious events such as these often attract this sort of bizarre attention.

Today the Joelma Building looks like any other high-rise in the bustling center of São Paulo, as you can see from the photo at the top of this article. But looks can be deceiving. The dark history of this place is only evident when you look into the past.

I do not know the copyright status of the photo of the Joelma victims on the balcony. It has been reproduced various places on the Web, including this article from The Paranormal Guide. If it is copyrighted, fair use is claimed.
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13 Comments

  1. I know that they were yelling at people not to jump, but I don’t know if I could have waited to burn to death. I read about the Triangle Fire not that long ago, and many of them also jumped.

    The film of people on the roof trying to evade the flames was absolutely terrifying. I was glad to read that they survived at least.

    1. Jumping from fires is pretty common, unfortunately. I remember watching live as people jumped from the WTC towers on 9/11. That remains the single most horrifying thing I have ever seen in 42 years on this twisted planet.

  2. Two corrections: first, you correctly put the tilde in the city’s name (São Paulo) – which is rare and commendable in English speakers – but misspelled the second name – it’s São PaUlo with a “u”, not “PaOlo” with an “o”. That would be *Italian* for “Paul” and the language spoken in Brazil is Portuguese. That’s a common mistake, but very annoying to Brazilians – it’s like writing “Parys” or “Shykago”. The second correction is that Joelma was not a mixed-use building and it only had offices. It may have had one small apartment for the caretaker, which was common practice in some Brazilian high-rises at the time, but I don’t know if that was the case there.

    Joelma is now mostly vacant, because of the stigma from the fire. Not even renaming it to “Edifício Praça da Bandeira” (“Flag Square Building”, after a former square in front of it, now obliterated by expressways and a huge bus terminal) helped much. However, a local newspaper recently asked a fire safety specialist to inspect Joelma, and the building passed the inspection with flying colors, even exceeding the current codes’ specifications.

  3. In my previous comment, I forgot to mention the most important thing: I was in São Paulo the day of the Joelma fire, and so many years later, I still remember it very well. I was a boy at the time, a few days short of my 13th birthday (I’m 54 now). I’m originally from another part of Brazil, but that day I was visiting São Paulo with my mother. We were staying at a hotel also in downtown, but not close to Joelma (it’s a large area). So, I didn’t see the fire itself, but I remember I did hear the sirens of the firefighter cars, and since Joelma stands next to a vital expressway (Avenida Nove de Julho – July Ninth Avenue), traffic became chaotic all over the city in a domino effect. We were to take a plane that day to return to our hometown; we only made it because we realized we would have problems reaching the airport and left the hotel much earlier than what would be normally needed. I remember the taxi driver had to take a very long detour to try to avoid the monster traffic jams, and we took over 2 hours to get to Congonhas Airport (normally less than 30 minutes). We arrived there just in time for check-in. We knew there was a large fire in a building somewhere, but we didn’t know the details. It was only later at home, when watching the evening TV news, that we realized how big a tragedy it had been.

    1. Thanks for posting your story! It’s always interesting to hear the accounts of the people who were there. Also, I corrected my misspelling of São Paulo, thanks for flagging that.

  4. hey there, nice post. Actually some parts of this video are from the movie “Joelma” made some years later, and theres no actual sound in most of the real footage, pretty much ADR added later. i believe the best and most complete video about the fire is a fire brigade video made some years later called “Incendio” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6oC_QX3-G4 because theres a lotof information about the actual reasons for the fire and some technical details, also cause of the eerie narration and sound score. weirdly, 20 years after the building had to be closed for a few days to update its security measures in order to prevent fires, they never learn. http://memoriaglobo.globo.com/programas/jornalismo/coberturas/incendio-do-joelma.htm

    1. Actually, Fábio, in Joelma’s case they did learn, as the renovated building now exceeds current fire safety codices. It even has tactile emergency signs for visually impaired people, which are not mandatory. I hear its few tenants are mostly political liaison offices of the city councillors, as the City Council building (“Câmara dos Vereadores”) stands next to it. Andraus, however – the other infamous case of a large fire in São Paulo’s downtown – is a different story, as the building still falls short of the regulations and was not deemed safe on inspection. I remember when I was a kid and visited São Paulo – I used to spend a lot of time at Pirani, the department store that used to be on Andraus’ first floors. And of course, there was also the tragical 2013 fire at the Kiss night club in Santa Maria, southern Brazil, where over 200 young people died.

  5. The Joelma Fire started in my father, Bill Williams, office. He worked for Crefisul the company that was in that building. He was one of the first to jump. He jumped from the bathroom next to his office. He was only 37 years old. I was 11 at the time. My whole life is an echo of this unnecessary tragedy. There was a class action lawsuit filed against the builder years later but the attorneys got most of the money. I still can’t stand the thought of the pain my father endured. I can’t even begin t explain what this did to our family. 43 years later we are still recovering and healing. My father was an artist and I’m blessed to have kept some of his work. I have found healing in Art as well.

    1. Jennifer, thanks for sharing your and your father’s story. That’s tragic. I know that disasters of this kind (or any kind) resonate for a long, long time throughout people’s lives and throughout history. My condolences.

    2. Jennifer, that must have been dreadful for you and all the other relatives to have lost a loved family member like this..When the news broke of the Joelma Tower, it caused Worldwide dismay..but some of the films of that era were mercifully not shown at the time.
      When the London Inferno began, I immediately thought of the Joelma Tower, and yet the tower here was just as deadly in failings as Joelma was.
      Another group of people destined for a life of loss, without their loved ones..Lawyers taking the compensation is truly wicked..but no money compensates for the loss of one’s Dad, Mum, or heaven forbid, Children. Respects to you.

  6. I remember this terrible tragedy as a child in London, where it made Worldwide news.
    It was supposed to be the Tragedy that lessons were learned from..but 40 yrs later, London has it’s own Joelma style tragedy..the Grenfell Tower .
    Flammable cladding was attached to the front of the 1974 building to ”improve it’s appearance” for wealthy residents who looked upon it.
    It became a Funeral Pyre for goodness knows how many innocent people, just like Joelma tower.
    There is something really horrific about fires, a primeval fear all animals/birds have hardwired into us.
    São Paulo and London will never forget these disasters.

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