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.
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.