Cleveland Clinic fire of 1929

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Cleveland Clinic fire of 1929
Time 11:30 AM
Date May 15, 1929 (1929-05-15)
Location Cleveland Clinic
Coordinates Coordinates: 41°30′08″N 81°37′03″W / 41.50236°N 81.61755°W / 41.50236; -81.61755
Deaths 123
Non-fatal injuries 92
Property damage US$50,000 (US$683,850 in 2013 dollars)
Awards US$45,000

The Cleveland Clinic fire was a major structure fire at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on May 15, 1929. It started in the basement of the hospital and it was caused by nitrocellulose x-ray film that ignited when an exposed light bulb was too close to the film.[1] The fire generated poisonous gas and two separate explosions. The fire claimed 123 lives, including one of the founders, Dr. John Phillips.[2][3] Policeman Ernest Staab was killed by the gas while rescuing 21 victims.[2]


The Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit Ohio corporation, founded in 1921 by four physicians. Late in the morning of May 15, 1929, an exposed light bulb too close to some nitrocellulose x-ray film ignited the film. The burning nitrocellulose film quickly produced a significant amount of poisonous gas, causing victims to suffocate, the faces of the victims turning yellowish brown within minutes.[2] Further complicating fire-fighting, nitrocellulose continues to burn even while immersed in water, and fighting the film-fueled fire simply caused more poisonous smoke to accumulate, raising the death toll.[4]

A first explosion came at a few seconds past 11:30AM; a clock on the third floor balcony stopped at that time. After the hollow center of the building was filled with poisonous gas, a second explosion shattered the skylight and sent the vapors into every corner of the clinic. Many of the building occupants succumbed to the poisons.[2]


Despite the heavy loss of life, firemen estimated the property damage at only $50,000 ($683,850 in 2013 dollars).[5]

According to investigators, the clinic was not at fault for the fire. Nonetheless, the disaster was responsible for influencing significant changes to fire-fighting techniques. The city of Cleveland issued gas masks to its fire departments and proposed a city ambulance service.[1] Nationally, the disaster prompted medical facilities to establish standards for the storage of nitrocellulose film and other hazardous materials.[1]