Knights of Columbus Hostel Fire

The most deadly structural fire in what is now Canada consumed the Knights of Columbus hostel in St John's, Nfld, on 12 December 1942.

An arsonist set fire to the building when it was packed with military personnel and their companions. The hostel was a firetrap: doors opened inward, exits were restricted and there was no emergency lighting system. Within 5 minutes 99 persons had been burned to death and 100 seriously injured. The main fire station was only 180 m away, but the building was doomed before the engines arrived.

About 500 people were in the building when it caught fire. Most were watching the radio broadcast, but some were sleeping in the servicemen's hostel. The windows in the hall of the newly-built K of C Leave Centre had been boarded over to meet blackout regulations. Doors were either locked, or barred from the outside. The wooden building burned very quickly. Paper streamers that had decorated the ceiling of the hall ignited and fell onto the people below. A few windows and doors were smashed open, but many people could not escape. As the building rapidly burned to the ground, 99 people died, and another 107 were hurt.

The burning toilet paper formed a sort of torch. It swiftly burned through the 7/8-inch wallboard above it. Then it threw its flames along the vast interior of the lofts, licking up among the sun-dried and resinous rafter timbers, feeding on the tarred felt roof trusses, and consuming all the oxygen. The plumes of bluish flames burned slowly that way over the auditorium for at least half an hour, producing a huge ovenful of carbon monoxide gas that is clear, colorless, without taste or smell, but lethally poisonous.

"By the time the fire made its first public appearance at 11:10 p.m.," Sir Brian DUNFIELD later deduced, "all the extensive lofts of the building, tight and unventilated as they were, had become a gas-holder filled with inflammable and explosive gases - an immense bomb over the heads of the people in the building and unknown to them."