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Edifício Praça da Bandeira, better known by its former name, Joelma Building, is a 25-story building in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, located at Avenida 9 de Julho, 225. At 8:50am on 1 February 1974, an air conditioning unit on the twelfth floor overheated, starting a fire. There were 756 people in the building at the time. Because flammable materials had been used to furnish the interior, the entire building was engulfed in flames within 20 minutes. The fire was extinguished at 1:30pm, with 179 deaths and 300 people injured.
This happened less than two years after another deadly fire in downtown São Paulo, that of the Andraus Building. As of December 2015, the Joelma fire remains the third worst skyscraper fire ever in terms of the death toll, after the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Fire safety problems
The Joelma Building is a reinforced fire-resistant concrete hull construction. So, the structure itself did not suffer enough damage from the fire to cause a collapse. However, the interior was furnished with flammable items. Partitions, desks and chairs were made of wood. The ceilings were cellulose fiber tiles set in wood strappings. The curtains and carpets were also flammable.
At the time, no emergency lights, posted in fire alarms, fire sprinkler systems, or emergency exits were fitted to the building. There was only one stairwell, which ran the full height of the building. An air conditioner unit on the twelfth floor, which started the fire, needed a special type of circuit breaker, which was unavailable at the time it was installed. In order to use this unit, it was installed bypassing the twelfth floor electrical control panel.
The fire was discovered at around 8:50 am, and was reported to the São Paulo Fire Department approximately 15 minutes later, by an occupant of an adjacent building. The first fire units arrived five minutes later, and immediately called for assistance.
Inside, the fire reached the building's only stairwell and climbed as high as the 15th floor. It did not reach any higher because of a lack of flammables in the stairwell, however it filled the stairwell with smoke and heat, making it impassable. Fire crews attempted to gain access to the building using this stairwell, but could not go any higher than the 11th floor.
Approximately three hundred people were evacuated using the elevators, a practice that is not recommended by fire officials. The four elevator operators were only able to make a few trips, however, before conditions within the building made it impossible to continue.
Approximately 170 people went to the roof during the fire, in hopes of being rescued by helicopter. There was, however, no place clear enough or big enough for helicopters to land. Even if such had been put in, the strong heat and dense smoke made approaching the building by helicopter extremely hazardous. Approximately 80 people hid under the tiles on the roof of the building. They alone were found alive.
Some people had managed to climb out onto ledges, and a few were able to lower themselves from floor to floor, and were then able to climb down the aerial ladders, while being protected from heat, smoke, and flames. Most of the others stayed where they were until rescue teams could gain access to the building. Desperate to escape the threat of the fire, forty people jumped, or fell, off the building. Fire crews tried to persuade them otherwise by waving to them and holding up signs that said, "Remain calm! The fire is out!" Still, they jumped in hopes of reaching a ladder, or surviving the fall. All forty of these people were killed.
By 10:30 am, the fire subsided. Two hours later, it had engulfed all flammables and simply burned itself out. Medical teams, fire crews and police were then able to enter the office towers and search for survivors. Upon completing their search, authorities found that 227 people died in this fire. At the time, this had been the greatest death toll in any high-rise building fire.
After the fire
After the disaster the Joelma Building remained closed for 4 years for reconstruction. Once reconstructed, it was renamed Praça da Bandeira ("Flag Square," the name of a former square facing the building).
The Joelma fire became a landmark case that led to changes in fire safety regulations not only in Brazil, but all over the world. For instance, Los Angeles enacted Regulation 10 (revoked in 2014), which mandated all new buildings taller than 75 feet (23 m) to have a rooftop helipad for emergency fire evacuation. The regulation was created in response to the Joelma fire.
In 2013, newspaper Folha de S. Paulo asked a fire safety specialist to inspect both the Joelma and Andraus buildings. He found that the renovated Joelma exceeded current fire safety regulations, many of which were enacted exactly because of the two fires. Joelma even had tactile floors for blind people in the escape routes; this is not mandatory. Andraus failed the same inspection.
- Incendio (YouTube video), a 14-minute documentary film from 1974 by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association about the Joelma fire
- Historical Survey of Building Collapse Due to Fire
- Joelma Building Story
- "10 Worst Skyscraper Fires". DDS International. 2015-04-16. Retrieved 2015-12-02.
- Mungler, Sean (2015-02-01). "The Towering Inferno for real: The story of the Joelma Building disaster". Retrieved 2015-12-02.
- Dunn, Benjamin (2014-11-18). "Don’t Expect Anything Soon With L.A.'s New Skyscraper Regulations". Retrieved 2015-12-02.
- Monteiro, André (2013-02-17). "Após 41 anos, edifício Andraus falha em segurança contra fogo" [41 years later, Andraus Building fails fire safety inspection]. Folha de S. Paulo (in Portuguese). Retrieved 2015-12-02.