Saturday, July 8, 2017

Huge 1937 Film Fire

On July 9th, 1937, a major fire broke out in a 20th Century Fox film storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey, United States. It was caused by the spontaneous combustion of nitrate film stored in inadequately-ventilated vaults. The fire resulted in one death and two injuries, and destroyed all of the film in the vault.

This fire was responsible for the loss of most of the silent films produced by Fox Film Corporation before 1932. Also destroyed were Educational Pictures negatives and films of several other studios. It brought attention to the potential for decaying nitrate film to spontaneously ignite, and changed the focus of film preservation efforts to include a greater focus on fire safety.

Dangers of Nitrate Film

The early motion picture industry primarily used nitrocellulose film stock, commonly called nitrate film. This film is flammable, and produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. Nitrate fires burn rapidly, and cannot typically be extinguished, capable of burning even underwater. Additionally, nitrocellulose is subject to thermal decomposition and hydrolysis, breaking down over time in the presence of high temperatures and moisture. This decaying film stock releases nitrogen oxides that themselves contribute to the decay and make the damaged film burn more easily. Under the right conditions, nitrate film can even spontaneously combust. In part because of substantial variability in the manufacturing of early film, there is considerable uncertainty about the circumstances necessary for self-ignition. Sustained temperatures of 106 °F (41 °C) or higher, large quantities of nitrate film, increased humidity, poor ventilation, and aged or decaying film have all been considered risk factors. Most such fires in film archives have taken place in heat waves during summer months, in closed facilities with limited ventilation, exacerbating several of these variables. Especially in confined areas, such fires can result in explosions.

Large and dangerous fires sometimes resulted. On 4 May 1897, one of the first major fires involving nitrate film began when a Lumière projector caught fire at the Bazar de la Charité in Paris; the resulting blaze caused 180 deaths. In the United States, a series of fires occurred at industry facilities. The Lubin Manufacturing Company's vault in Philadelphia exploded on 13 June 1914, followed on 9 December by a fire that destroyed Thomas Edison's laboratory complex in West Orange, New Jersey. The New York studio of the Famous Players Film Company burned in September 1915; in July 1920, the shipping facility of its corporate successor, Famous Players-Lasky, was destroyed by a fire in Kansas City, Missouri, despite construction intended to minimize that risk. The United Film Ad Service vault, also in Kansas City, burned on 4 August 1928, and a fire was reported at Pathé Exchange nine days later. In October 1929, the Consolidated Film Industries facility was badly damaged by a nitrate fire. Spontaneous combustion was not proven to have occurred in any of these fires; it is possible that the potential of nitrate film to self-ignite was not even recognized before 1933.

The destruction of the Little Ferry facility spurred an interest in fire safety as an aspect of film preservation. Unlike previous large nitrate film fires, the spontaneous combustion of decomposing film stock was determined to be responsible. Investigators suggested that the older nitrocellulose film stored in the archive was of lower quality than then-current film and thus more prone to instability. The Society of Motion Picture Engineers's Committee on Preservation of Film, three months after the vault fire, cited "recent and rather extensive film fires" as evidence that existing preservation efforts had failed to adequately address the "fire problem". More heavily reinforced film vaults were suggested, to prevent fires in a single vault from destroying entire archival facilities. Film storage cabinets with ventilation and cooling systems were also proposed, as was further research into improving the quality of cellulose acetate film to encourage its use as a safer replacement for nitrate film.

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