May 22

This Day in History

Disaster

May 22, 1967:

Belgian department store burns

A fire at the L'Innovation department store in Brussels, Belgium, kills 322 people on this day in 1967. Poor preparation and safety features were responsible for the high death toll.

At L'Innovation, it was the first day of a heavily promoted American fortnight exhibition, a salute to American fashion. There were many United States flags displayed through the store as part of the promotion and hundreds of clerks were on hand for the expected crowds on opening day.

There were approximately 2,500 people shopping in the store during their lunch hours when fire broke out in the furniture department on the fourth floor, just after noon. However, virtually no one in the store was aware of the fire because no fire alarm went off, nor were there any sprinklers. The fire spread quickly because there were only a few handheld extinguishers on hand and some reported that the many flags on display helped fuel the flames. In addition, firefighters were slow to arrive because the store was located in a crowded area of the city with narrow streets.

Panic set in when the shoppers realized what was happening. Many suffered trampling injuries after getting caught in the stampede of people trying to leave the store. At the same time, looters added to the general chaos. Then, several explosions were set off as the fire hit some butane gas canisters in the camping area of the store. Not too long after that, one side of the store collapsed on to some fire engines parked outside. Many people made it to the roof seeking an escape route; at least three died jumping from the building. One firefighter, Jacques Mesmans, jumped from the second floor with a woman whom he was trying to save and broke both of his legs. Most of the 322 fatalities were from smoke inhalation.

Despite speculation that the fire was a deliberate anti-U.S. action, most of the available evidence pointed to an electrical fire.

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