Luna Park Ghost Train Fire
Hi and welcome to Failurology; a podcast about engineering failures. I’m your host, Nicole
And I’m Brian. And we’re both from Calgary, AB.
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This week in engineering news, robot bugs that can go anywhere.
As you have probably experienced in perhaps unpleasant ways, there is really no place that’s off limits to an insect. They can fit through the tiniest of cracks.
That’s why researchers at the University of Pittsburgh used them as inspiration for their tiny robots which are designed to complete tasks in hard to reach places and inhospitable environments.
The robots are made of a polymeric artificial muscle and they are built to jump around like a flea
The curved composite shape of the polymer muscle uses built up energy from a few volts of electricity and then releases that energy to spring, or jump, forward.
Due to their lightweight and small size, these robots can jump across sand and even water easily.
The possible applications are endless, but the first that come to mind are diagnostic imaging,, environmental or structural evaluations or even collecting water samples.
If you want to read more about the robot bugs, check out the link on the web page for this episode.
Now on to this week’s engineering failure; the Luna Park Ghost Train fire in Sydney, Australia. This one was recommended by a listener.
Fire broke out on the Ghost Train ride on June 9, 1979, around 10:15pm. 43 years ago this month.
Luna Park is located on Milsons Point on the northside of Sydney Harbour, opposite the Sydney Opera House.
Before we get to the fire itself, let’s talk about the ride.
The Ghost train was believed to have been built in 1931 and transported to Milsons Point circa 1934/35 for Luna Park’s grand opening in October 1935.
The ghost train ride was an indoor amusement ride that was built like an indoor maze. Riders would board cars that ran along a track which meandered through the building in the dark. I think we’ve been on or at least seen rides like this. Rather than a roller coaster that brings you up and down and all around, these were meant to be more scary, like a haunted house.
The building that housed the train was mostly timber construction, including exterior and interior walls, with corrugated iron at the north end. The roof, which was in such a state of disrepair that it was unsafe to walk on, was also timber, overlaid with layers of bitumen impregnated building paper and hot mopped bitumen on top.
There were three sets of doors on the western side of the building which had panic bars and illuminated exit signs. There was also a small exit on the east side, but it wasn’t clearly marked and blended in with the walls. Some of the staff weren’t even aware of the east door.
The winding rail course that the ride cars followed and the building design were deliberately trying to disorient passengers as part of the ride, which made it very hard to navigate in an emergency. Some of the experts that investigated the fire even said that with lights on throughout the building they would have gotten lost if not for the rail track. It’s no wonder that riders would have struggled to find the exits, even if they were 2 or 3m away.
As we mentioned, the fire broke out around 10:15pm on june 9th, 1979.
Thick smoke started to roll out the tunnel doors, staff raised the alarm, and started to pull people from the ride as they exited the tunnel.
Because of low water pressure, understaffing in the park, and inadequate coverage by the park’s fire hose system, the fire consumed the entire ride. Once the fire hit the roof, it spread very quickly with dense black smoke.
Riders detected the smoke as many as 5 minutes before they realised there was a fire. They thought that the smoke was part of the ride.
It took an hour to get the fire under control, but by that point the only thing they could do was prevent it from spreading to adjacent rides.
7 of the 35 riders died in the fire. It’s believed that the 7 who perished had climbed out of their cars and were training to escape from the tunnel. Some speculate that had they stayed in their cars, they might have survived. But then some others reported empty cars on fire leaving the tunnel. So who really knows.
The entire park was inspected in October 1977 by a senior health inspector and a district officer of the fire prevention department of the fire brigades.
Following this inspection, the general manager and secretary of Luna Park were directed to
Install illuminated exit signage at the escape doors and the availability of those doors for public use.
install safety emergency lighting.
Install a fire hose reel system to allow protection to all segments of the park. The hoses needed to be long enough to account for internal partitions and be able to reach all areas of a building with a full extended hose reel. There were hoses at either end of the ghost train building but they were not long enough and one of them didn't have a nozzle.
Treat all curtains, drapes and fabrics throughout the park with an approved fire retardant biannually.
They had 18 months to complete this, but allowed a 12 month extension exactly one month before the fire. When the fire occurred, only the emergency lighting and hose reel work was outstanding.
The owner’s argument was that there was at least one staff member inside the building at all times that could detect a fire, warn other attendants and help people exit. But this was not the case on the night of the fire.
The cause of the fire is unknown, although electrical faults and arson are the most popular theories. In fact, there was a full colonial inquiry, but they did not definitively determine the cause.
They were able to determine the origin of the fire which was a new display showing a fake fire. Which is ironic.
The inquiry also notes that “the most probable cause was the ignition of flammable litter by a cigarette or match carelessly or recklessly discarded by a person riding on the train.” Smoking was forbidden within the building that housed the train, but staff had a hard time enforcing it.
But the cause of the fire doesn’t really matter for this episode. Because regardless of why the fire started, inadequate fire fighting measures and low staffing on the ride allowed the fire to completely consume the ride.
In addition to the recommendations from the 1977 inspection, the coroner noted that the following precautions should have been taken.
Additional emergency exits
Clearly mark all of the doors
Add smoke alarm and smoke exhaust systems
Add emergency lighting - since the ride was registered as an amusement device under the construction safety act, emergency lighting was required. The building had been inspected twice in the 6 months before the fire and those inspectors did not enforce the emergency lighting requirements.
Add a sprinkler system
Create an evacuation system and training staff to use it
There are more on the list that I will get to in a second, but wanted to note that the coroner said that if the items just listed were not in place, the ride shouldn’t have operated without an attendant doing what is essentially fire watch.
Train staff to use fire fighting equipment
Properly clean of the floor and exhibits
Provide adequate hoses to the fire hydrants.
The coroner ruled that the management and staff of Luna Park breached their duty of care by not following advice to install a sprinkler system. However, criminal negligence charges were never laid. It sounds to me like the owners were found responsible but not maliciously so, just ignorantly responsible. Which is still really really bad. And I think if this occurred today, it might go differently, although who really knows.
One of the challenges that led to this fire was that the fire brigade has limited power to inspect structures and hold owners accountable.
Something interesting to note is that I don’t believe Australia follows the National Fire Protection Association standards. And, I get it, NFPA is an American standard. We follow it in Canada due to our close proximity to the US and similarities in our codes. I remember reading about this when I was researching the Grenfell Tower Fire that we covered in episode 4. Because the combustible cladding and testing around it is very clearly outlined in NFPA, but the UK, Australia and several other countries had issues with combustible cladding; leading me to believe they didn’t use NFPA. All this to say, I don’t know what fire safety standards are in place in Australia. But NFPA is available for free online and I encourage any engineers to take a peek at the sections that relate to their work.
The park reopened in 1982 under a new name and new owners. The park was named Harbourside Amusement Park until it closed again in 1988 after an independent engineering inspection determined that several rides needed urgent repair. The owners did not repair and reopen the park before the government deadline and the park transferred to new ownership.
The case of the fire was reopened in 1987, but no new findings were reported.
The park reopened in 1995 under the name Luna Park. It closed again following noise complaints from clifftop neighbours that restricted the Big Dipper rollercoaster’s operating hours such that the resultant drop in attendance made the park unprofitable. Luna Park reopened in 2004 and has continued operating since. It has been classified as a heritage listed amusement park since March 2010. And has 23 attractions including 4 roller coasters.
So there you have it, the Luna Park Ghost Ride fire. Like pretty much every failure we have talked about on this show, this one was also preventable. Fire protection and life safety systems are critical in an emergency, but sometimes no one thinks about how a structure will react in an emergency until it's too late. The ghost ride fire happened 43 years ago, so hopefully many rules and regulations have changed for the better since then.
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Bye everyone, talk soon!