Investigation of the fire in Vuosaari has proceeded
The investigation of a fire that led to the death of three under-age children and their mother in Vuosaari, Helsinki, in December 2016 has proceeded. The investigation will soon advance from fact-finding to an analysis, on the basis of which we will arrive at conclusions and issue safety recommendations. The purpose of the investigation carried out by the Safety Investigation Authority is to improve safety and prevent similar accidents in the future.
The fire broke out on the night of 9 December 2016. The father of the family of five had left the apartment in the evening to go to work on a night shift. After he left, one of the family members turned on the controller knobs of the sauna stove. According to the father, they had no intention of taking a sauna since the family always took one together when the father was at home. Neither was the family in the habit of drying laundry or other wet clothes in the sauna, although they did keep some clothes and shoes there.
Either the mother or one of the children aged 2–7 years had turned the controller knobs of the sauna stove. It is possible that the mother wanted to use the sauna for some purpose, despite the fact that she did not really know how to use it. Alternatively, one of the children may have turned the knobs without understanding their true purpose. However, according to the father, nothing like this had happened before.
Apparently, the timer knob of the sauna stove had been turned into a timed switch-on position, so that the stove began to heat up at around after 1.30 a.m. After about over half an hour, the clothes close to the sauna stove caught fire. The fire developed in the sauna and partly in the bathroom, while the residents were probably sleeping. The lack of oxygen slowed the fire, which neither developed into a fierce blaze nor spread to the rest of the apartment. However, the fire generated a great deal of smoke. When the combustion gases released by the fire were ignited, the flames spread from the bathroom towards the hall.
Since there was no smoke alarm device in the apartment, the mother probably woke up too late. The evacuation of small children from a fire depends almost entirely on adults, since the functional capabilities and waking up of children are always uncertain. In this particular case, the mother did wake up and probably tried to help the children. Apparently, the mother had also checked the situation in the stairwell since the exterior door of the apartment was open when the rescue workers arrived. At that point, the interior door at the entrance was closed.
The windows of the sauna and other rooms remained intact, although windows can break during a fire. When windows remain intact, the ignition of combustion gases causes positive pressure in the apartment. As a result of this, smoke spread from the cracks of the interior door through the entrance to the stairwell and through the ventilation to the other apartments. The positive pressure may have prevented the mother and children from opening the interior door or the balcony door, both of which opened inwards.
Never place combustible materials, such as clothes, close to the sauna stove
The ignition of combustion gases and the shouts of other residents woke the neighbours. Several neighbours made emergency calls to the emergency response centre, which alerted rescue services to the scene. Furthermore, a smoke detector on the stairwell sounded an alarm. The rescuers arrived in the yard ten minutes from the alarm being given, after which they took a while to reach the sixth floor. They used a small amount of water to put out the fire, which had already begun to burn itself out, and transferred the victims from the very smoky apartment to the care of the paramedics. However, the mother and children could no longer be saved.
The victims were members of an immigrant family. One of the purposes of this investigation is to clarify what kind of information and support immigrants receive and need regarding housing safety in Finland.
Lack of smoke alarms is common, and sauna fires also occur among native Finns; this investigation also aims to reach conclusions on sauna fires in general. The matters clarified during the investigation will be gathered in an investigation report which, in accordance with the investigation plan, will be published in May.
The main safety-related observations made at this point of the investigation of the fire in Vuosaari concern smoke alarms and the use of saunas. Smoke alarms are not only compulsory, but also very useful in fires like this. According to the regulations, an apartment like this should have been equipped with two, preferably three smoke alarms: one in the exit route and one in each bedroom.
Combustible materials should never be placed close to a sauna stove. If the residents do not intend to use a sauna for a while, or if there is a danger that children will touch the controllers of a sauna stove, it can be disconnected using the fuse box.
Kai Valonen, Chief Safety Investigator, tel. +358 (0)2951 50707 (Twitter: @KValonen)
Sakari Lauriala, Head of Communications, tel. +358 (0)2951 50714 (Twitter: @SakariLauriala)