Saturday, February 25, 2017

The January 16, 1967 McCormick Place Fire, Chicago, Illinois.

McCormick Place, an exhibition center on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, opened in November 1960. The center included a theater, several restaurants and banquet rooms, and over 500,000 square feet of exhibition space.
In January of 1967, McCormick Place hosted the National Housewares Manufacturers Association Show, which featured nearly 1,250 booths selling kitchen and household appliances. The event was scheduled to open on Monday, January 16, but, at around 2 AM that morning, McCormick Place janitors noticed smoke rising from a small fire at the back of an exhibition booth.
The janitors waited to raise the alarm and instead attempted to extinguish the fire themselves by beating at it with brooms and pieces of carpeting. The flames quickly spread to the walls of the booth, prompting the janitors to call the Chicago Fire Department. Firefighters responded immediately and, within five minutes of the first alarm, an officer on-scene ordered a second alarm.
By 2:30 AM, five alarms were sounded, bringing 94 apparatus and over 500 fire and rescue personnel to the scene. Fire fighting efforts were severely delayed, however, as four of the seven McCormick Place fire hydrants were shut off.
To attack the flames, firefighters had to draft water from Lake Michigan and rely on fire hydrants a quarter-mile away. The fire was extinguished by 10AM, around the time the N.H.M.A. show was scheduled to begin, but McCormick Place was essentially destroyed.
Initial investigations by the City of Chicago exposed several serious fire safety issues that had been overlooked by McCormick Place management. The exhibition area did not have fire sprinklers or fire walls, and fire proof materials did not protect the steel roof supports. Also, most of the electrical wiring for the booths did not follow electrical safety standards, as the facility was still using temporary electrical systems for the exhibition are as. Most tragically, one McCormick Place security guard was killed in the fire, presumably because he could not find an unlocked emergency exit. Other employees who escaped the blaze confirmed that they had never been told how to find unlocked emergency exits.

In the months following the fire, the Illinois Inspection and Rating Bureau launched a comprehensive investigation into the McCormick Place Fire and published a detailed report on its findings. The investigators did not determine a definitive cause, but it is assumed that the temporary electrical wiring started the fire. The report did, however, shine light on many of the difficulties the firefighters faced, noting how “firefighting was seriously hampered because of lack of adequate water, intense heat, rapid fire spread, early roof collapse and unstable exterior panel walls.” The report helped to bring about numerous changes to the Chicago Municipal Code, as ordinances on exhibition halls, electrical facilities, emergency exits, fire walls, and smoke and heat vents were soon revised based on the lessons learned from the McCormick Place Fire. 

by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Thank you for this informative article. I rode the #3 King Drive bus to school at 16th and Michigan Avenue the morning of the fire. The route took us past McCormick Place every morning as the bus made its way to Michigan from King Drive (then South Park Boulevard). On this particular morning I was horrified to see the burned out shell of McCormick Place and fire department canons still shooting arcs of water into the smoldering wreckage. I will be speaking about this historic event for my Fundamentals of Speech Communication 1100 class on Saturday, June 29th. I would like your permission to use several photos from this web page as visual aids during my commentary.
    Kind regards,
    Rodney D. Fair

  2. Sad to say that it takes a tragic event to change building codes and laws. I wonder who the insurer was for the event and for the building.

  3. I remember this clearly, but am aghast that some of the fire hydrants were "turned off". Why in the world would someone do such a thing?

  4. I remember the news about the McCormick Place fire. What I didn't connect, was interestingly, less than two weeks later, Chicago experienced its worst snowfall in history. Two catastrophic occurrences within two weeks of each other

  5. My father was first on the scene, driving the fire chief from the China Town firehouse. The reason for the hydrants being turned off was due to construction work on Lake Shore Drive. The contractor shut off the water while they were working on the road. Also, my father said they had to tie the trucks down with ropes, since there was so much ice the trucks started slipping towards the lake.


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