In the early hours of St Valentine’s Day in 1981, around 840 people were at a disco at the Stardust nightclub in Dublin when a fire was spotted in one of the seating areas. The fire quickly spread into the main area of the club causing the lights to fail as people began desperately looking for an escape – 48 people died and 214 were injured.
BRE’s investigation focused on how a small and apparently unthreatening fire, confined to a few seats, turned so quickly into a large and deadly blaze. The study started with a series of tests, including flame spread, fire spread, heat release and fire propagation tests, to establish the likely cause of ignition to the seating unit.
This was followed by a full-scale reconstruction of part of the nightclub – this included having the carpet tiles that lined the walls manufactured as these were no longer being made. It demonstrated how a fire on one seat against the wall could ignite and spread rapidly through the carpet tiles, generating heat – and molten droplets – that radiated down onto and ignited adjacent furniture. Having fully developed in that area, it was estimated that the fire could have spread to involve the whole building in less than two minutes. This sudden, fast switch from gas to fire is called a flashover.
A flashover is a phase of a fire where most unburned pyrolsis gases and cellulosic fuels (furniture and floor coverings) in the room reach ignition temperature almost simultaneously and burst into flame. The temperature at which flashover occurs is approximately 1100°F (600°C). When flashover occurs, all fuels in the room are on fire and temperature in the room reaches its maximum.
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