Gothenburg Disco Fire
On October 28, 1998, a disastrous arson fire occurred during
a Halloween party at a nightclub in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Of the estimated 400 young people in attendance, 63 died
in the blaze.
The second-floor hall, which was constructed of concrete
and masonry block, was 105 feet (32 meters) by 31 feet (9.5
meters) and had several rooms, including a television room,
directly off of the main assembly area. Acoustical tile
was suspended from the ceiling, which had a noncombustible
void above it. The wall of the corridor leading into the
hall had wainscoting approximately 4 feet (1.2 meters) high.
The precise composition of the interior finish in the hall
is unknown, but it was reported that party decorations,
including a number of flags, had been hung on the walls.
A series of eight windows on the northeast wall 7 feet (2.2
meters) above the floor measured 5.9 feet by 2.6 feet (1.8
meters by 0.8 meters). Six of the windows were in the hall
itself, and two were in ancillary rooms off the hall. The
southwest wall had five similar windows, but they were covered
by security bars to prevent intrusion.
The remains of the hall’s furniture indicate that
it was made of combustible materials on metal frames. Much
of it had been removed from the main hall to make room for
dancing, but some of it had been stored in the southeast
stairwell, which proved to be a fatal mistake.
There was one exit at each end of the hall, each equipped
with a door 3 feet (0.9 meters) wide that swung out in the
direction of travel and led to stairways 5 feet (1.5 meters)
wide. The main stairway on the northwest end discharged
directly outside and was the stairway through which the
occupants had entered. The other stairway, on the southeast
end, discharged into a corridor through which people would
have had to travel before reaching the outside. Unfortunately,
this was the stairway that was full of furniture and thus
Although there were lighted exit signs at each end of the
hall, the building had no sprinkler or fire alarm systems.
Survivors reported that a folding wall partway down the
main hall was partially closed, but there was an opening
wide enough to allow three people abreast to pass through.
A stage was on the southeast end, where a disc jockey had
set up his equipment.
The private Halloween party for high school students was
hosted by the Macedonian Association. Normally, when an
event to which tickets are sold is held, the fire brigade
is notified to determine how many people will be allowed
inside the occupancy. In this case, the fire brigade was
never contacted, even though tickets had been sold. Survivors
reported that the hall was so crowded that it was impossible
to dance because people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Shortly before midnight, the disc jockey opened the door
leading to the southeast stairwell, and smoke from a fire
in the stairwell billowed into the hall. It’s not
known whether anyone closed the door again after the fire
Apparently, no announcement was made about the fire. Some
of the survivors, who had been further away from the end
at which the fire occurred, reported they smelled and saw
smoke but initially thought it was cigarette smoke. Others
reported that the disco lights on the stage near the door
started to pop and drop to the floor, probably due to fire
When the Gothenburg Fire Brigade received the call reporting
the fire, there was a great deal of noise in the background,
and the dispatcher had difficulty determining the exact
address. When the dispatcher eventually got the correct
address, an initial standard response of an engine and a
ladder with eight firefighters was sent from the Lundby
fire station 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers) away. As the units
approached, Station Officer Harald Jansson saw light smoke
over the building and thought it might be a dumpster fire.
The driver, Ulf Magnusson, concurred, saying that it was
“not the typical black smoke we normally see at building
fires.” As they turned the corner, however, they saw
that the building was on fire, and Jansson realized that
it was indeed a major fire. He requested additional units,
which had already been dispatched, based on additional telephone
calls the alarm room was receiving.
When the apparatus pulled into the parking lot, it couldn’t
reach the building because of the crowd. Jansson had to
walk in front of the truck to get people to clear the
way for them to approach the fire. As he got closer, he
saw that a number of young people had jumped from the
second-story windows and were lying injured on the ground.
There were also people inside the building at the windows
among the fully developed fire. Other building occupants
were pushing the ones in the windows out, causing them
to fall 22 feet (6.7 meters) to the ground.
Although the firefighters’ immediate priority was
to get inside the building, they weren’t able to
place ground ladders up to the windows on the northeast
side of the building because of people lying on the ground
beneath them. An aerial apparatus was ordered to position
itself and place a ladder in one of the windows.
When the officer and his firefighters tried to enter the
building through the main entrance at the northwest end,
they found the stairway blocked by a tangle of injured
people who had to be dragged outside before firefighters
could proceed up the stairs. As they were doing this,
civilians kept trying to get back into the building to
rescue their friends. At one point, a firefighter was
hit over the head with a bottle, and police were called
in to control the crowd so the fire brigade could work.
Rescue personnel immediately began conducting triage operations
and setting priorities for treatment. A doctor who was
on her way home stopped to help and, as one officer noted,
“was given an inhuman task—totally unprepared...without
equipment or information, straight into this chaos.”
Another firefighter was working alone with three patients
when a group of youths brought him a dead friend and demanded
he treat him. When the firefighter tried to explain that
the person was dead, the young people assaulted him.
Meanwhile, fire crews who had managed to reach the top
of the stairs were faced with a wall of bodies packed
tightly inside the door to the hall from the floor to
the top of the doorway. Firefighters started removing
the bodies, quickly passing them down the stairs and outside.
As soon as they were able to make an opening, more people
from inside the hall pushed forward to fill it up.
While this rescue operation was under way, the aerial
apparatus placed a ladder at a window on the northeast
side of the building, and firefighters discharged water
from a hand line into the structure in an effort to protect
the occupants and reduce the fire’s severity. A
firefighter in breathing apparatus entered the building
through one of the windows, dropping 7.2 feet (2.2 meters)
to the floor. Using his radio, he immediately asked for
a short ladder so that victims could be rescued from inside.
As the firefighter moved further into the hall, people
pulled at him, almost dislodging his face mask. Although
the interior was dark, smoky, and hot, he said there was
no heavy fire involvement at this time. Progressing further
inside, he started to see some light from the doorway
at the northwest end where firefighters were removing
the bodies that had been obstructing the doorway.
While_ crews entered the building over the ladder, the
first-due pumper was discharging water into the structure
to protect them. Once this had started, the pump operator,
Magnusson, started treating the wounded around his apparatus
while waiting for a water supply. With the help of bystanders,
he began moving them and initiating basic care.
At about this time, an automobile repair garage next to
the building was forced open and used as a triage area.
The incident commander also requested that all Gothenburg
Fire Brigade units respond and help rescue and transport
victims. Openings were made in the fence around the building
to allow the ambulances to drive in, pick up the patients,
and leave immediately. The head of unit for the ambulance
section, Mats Kihlgren, reported that 16 ambulances from
the region were alerted, along with a medical team from
Östra Hospital. According to Kihlgren, as many as
six or seven patients had to be transported in a single
ambulance, with one ambulance orderly and the patients
taking turns breathing through a single oxygen mask en
route to a hospital. Forty-five victims were transported
over the course of two hours.
Lennart Olin, the senior on-duty officer who assumed command
of the incident, also requested that city buses be sent
to the scene to transport the large number of “walking
wounded”. As word of the disaster spread, many taxis
began to arrive, and these were used to transport less-severely
injured victims to four area hospitals, as well.
Once the fire had been extinguished, 20 more bodies were
found in a small room on the northwest end of the building.
These victims had apparently tried to flee but were unable
to make it through the main door at the northwest end.
They then tried to take refuge in the room, where they
were overcome by smoke. According to Olin, the bodies
were piled approximately 3 feet (0.9 meters) deep in the
room. Sixty-three people, ranging in age from 14 to 20
years old, died in the blaze, all from smoke inhalation.
Another 213 were injured. Of these 213, 60 were admitted
to intensive care units, and 13 were transported to specialized
burn units in Sweden and Norway. In addition to the 63
dead and 213 injured, 60 people were rescued by the fire
The Gothenburg police department investigated the fire
in the weeks following and determined that it had been
deliberately set in the southeast stairwell. Even though
the fire occurred in one of the exits, all the occupants
would have been able to make it out the other exit had
the occupancy load not been exceeded.
According to NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, there
are several ways to calculate the occupancy load of a
given area. It can be based on the square footage of the
area or the width of the egress components—that
is, the doors and stairs. The method and component that
yields the fewest occupants becomes the limiting factor.
According to calculations based on the building dimensions
provided by the Gothenburg Fire Brigade, the main assembly
hall would have had an occupancy of 312, based on a door
width of 31.2 inches (0.8 meters). Because 63 people died,
213 were injured, and 60 people were rescued, we know
there were at least 336 people in the hall, and some projections
run as high as 400. According to the Gothenburg Fire Brigade,
the maximum number of people they would have permitted
in the hall was 150.
The exact number of occupants in the building will probably
never be known, but overcrowding appears to have been
a major factor in the death toll. Given reports that people
were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and unable to dance,
it’s possible that the occupant load had reached
a “jam point.” According to Jim Lake, NFPA
senior fire protection specialist, a jam point occurs
when there are so many people in an occupancy that individuals
can’t move on their own volition but are dependent
on the people in front of them to move first. The main
exit quickly became impassable, causing people to seek
other means to escape. Given the building construction,
the Life Safety Code would also have required a fire alarm
system equipped with manual pull stations and audible
and visual alerting devices. A sprinkler system wouldn’t
have been required but it would unquestionably have changed
the outcome of this tragic fire.
Arson and overcrowding were a deadly combination for 63
young people on Halloween night 1998 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Let’s learn from this tragedy and make the changes
necessary to keep this from happening again, anywhere.
Fire Investigation Summary
to Club Fires