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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, completed in 1971, located at Avenida 9 de Julho, 225. 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 Joelma fire occurred on Friday, 1 February 1974. A short-circuit in a faulty air-conditioner on the 11th floor ignited the fire at 8:50 AM. The building was primarily occupied by a single banking company, Banco Crefisul S/A, of which 756 employees were present. A person in an adjacent building reported the fire and first fire personnel arrived on the scene at 9:10 AM. Assistance was requested and further units arrived at 9:30 AM, by which time flames were nearly to the roof of the building. 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. The large amount of combustible materials, including paper, plastics, electrical equipment and wooden walls and furniture, contributed to the fire spreading rapidly. Fire crews attempted to gain access to the building using this stairwell, but could not go any higher than the 11th floor. Most importantly, the building had no emergency exits, fire alarms or fire sprinkler systems installed.
Initial efforts led to the successful evacuation of some 300 employees before the heat and smoke became too overwhelming. 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. Many remaining employees climbed onto balconies for air and a group of 171 individuals fled to the roof. A helicopter rescue was attempted but the heat, smoke and inadequate landing space prevented helicopters from reaching the roof until well after the fire had burned out at 10:30 AM. Even if landing space had been available, the strong heat and dense smoke made approaching the building by helicopter extremely hazardous. Despite the best efforts of rescue personnel and witnesses, who shouted and created signs instructing people to remain calm, 40 individuals jumped to escape the conditions inside and in failed attempts to grasp unreachable fire ladders. None of these jumpers survived.
Approximately 80 people hid under the tiles on the roof of the building; they were found alive.
Thirteen people who tried to escape the fire using one of the elevators of the Joelma Building died of suffocation and their bodies were burnt by the fire. They were never identified. They are buried in anonymous graves at the Vila Alpina Cemetery.
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. At the time, this had been the greatest death toll in any high-rise building fire. Death toll estimates range from 179 to 189.
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, 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. Regulation 10 was rescinded in 2014, after petitioning by the builders of the 73 story Wilshire Grand Center building, who designed in a reinforced concrete central core into the building.
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.
- "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.
- Geraldo Luís revive drama do incêndio no edifício Joelma, de 1974
- Craighead, Geoff. High-Rise Security and Fire Life Safety. 3rd ed., illustrated. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009: 129-30. Print.
- Dutton, Ted. "Bold new tactics for fighting high-rise fires". Popular Mechanics Sep 1977: 67-71. Print.
- 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.
- Incendio (YouTube video), a 14-minute documentary film from 1974 by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association and the National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce, about the Joelma fire
- Historical Survey of Building Collapse Due to Fire
- Joelma Building Story