The Worst Arson Attacks in History

Fire has been the heart of humanity ever since our earliest descendants lit the first spark, igniting a spirit that would alter our planet's history forever. Fire brought us out of the caves and into the spotlight, allowing us to spread our influence to every corner of the globe. Our world was built by fire, but fire also has the ability to destroy, and criminals sometimes use fire for dangerous, harmful purposes. Many deadly arson attacks have occurred around the world over the course of history. 

Fire is always supposed to be handled responsibly, and for good reason. The raw power of fire can make it an incredibly deadly weapon, especially when wielded in the wrong hands. Even in recent history, such crimes can have extremely high casualty rates, with arson attack deaths caused by burning to death or asphyxiation. The worst arson attacks in history have killed hundreds of people, and all it took was the single strike of a match. In July 2019, the Kyoto Animation studio in Japan was attacked and engulfed, claiming 33 lives in the process.

This list covers some of the most twisted arson crimes of all time, highlighting the arsonists responsible for the deadliest attacks.  

  • 1990 Happy Land Nightclub Fire
    Photo: XX Charles Arrigo / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    1990 Happy Land Nightclub Fire

    Date: March 25, 1990

    Location: The Bronx, New York

    Culprit: Julio González

    Deaths: 87

    Julio González, a recently unemployed Cuban factory worker, became one of history's most infamous arsonists after he set fire to the Happy Land night club in the Bronx. It was one of the deadliest arson attacks in history, with only six of the club's 93 occupants making it out with their life. González started the fire after an altercation with the club's bouncer, who kicked him out late in the evening. González had been quarreling with his girlfriend, Lydia Feliciano, who had recently quit her job as a coat checker at the club. Feliciano was one of the six people to survive the fire. 

    The club itself came under criticism, as there were no fire escapes, sprinklers, or alarms installed in the building. The city government was also maligned for their poor enforcement of building codes. González eventually confessed to the crime and was convicted on all counts. He died in prison at age 61 after a heart attack. 

  • 1998 Gothenburg Discothèque Fire
    Photo: Rolf Broburg / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    1998 Gothenburg Discothèque Fire

    Date: October 29, 1998

    Location: Gothenburg, Sweden

    Culprit: Shoresh Kaveh, Housein Arsani, Mohammad Mohammadamini, Meysam Mohammadyeh

    Deaths: 63

    Four youths set fire to a youth club in Gothenburg, Sweden that killed 63 and injured over 200 others. Most of the victims were teenagers. The four perpetrators had been denied entrance to the club and had set the fire as an act of retaliation after the teens got angry over the entrance fee. They poured gasoline over the emergency stairwell and set it ablaze, with some of them not aware of how dangerous their actions would be. A massive international effort was required to treat high number of casualties, with some victims being flown out of the country by helicopter to receive treatment. The teens were all found guilty of arson. 

  • 1972 Blue Bird Café Fire
    Photo: eangagnon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    1972 Blue Bird Café Fire

    Date: September 1, 1972

    Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    Culprit: Gilles Eccles, James O’Brien, Jean-Marc Boutin

    Deaths: 37

    Three men were sentenced to life in prison after a fire they started killed nearly 40 people at the Blue Bird Café in Montreal. The two-story building housed the café as well as an Old West themed bar named the Wagon Wheel, situated on the second floor. After being rejected by the bar's bouncer, the three men plotted to get back at the establishment. While intoxicated, they filled a plastic bottle with gasoline and used it to set the bar's staircase on fire. Their goal was mostly to cause a scene, hoping the fire would be blamed on the bouncer's negligence and get him fired. The culprits later admitted that they did not think the fire would spread like it did, and at least one of the men contemplated suicide before his arrest. While all three received life sentences, they were all released on parole after 10 years.

  • 2019 Kyoto Animation Fire

    Date: July 18, 2019

    Location: Kyoto, Japan

    Culprit: Unknown (suspect detained)

    Deaths: 33

    At around 10:30 am July 18, a 41-year-old man entered the Kyoto Animation building in Kyoto, Japan, and sprayed petrol before igniting it. Witnesses say they heard a loud explosion before the building was engulfed. There were around 70 people in the building at the time; 36 ended up in the hospital, and 33 perished. 

    Witnesses also confirm the unnamed suspect appeared to be angry, though his relationship to the studio is unknown. He was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for injuries related to the fire. 

    Kyoto Animation is a popular studio that has produced such shows and films as K-On!, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, A Silent Voice, and more. 

    A GoFundMe campaign titled "Help KyoAni Heal" raised more than $300,000 in six hours. 

  • 1973 UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack
    Photo: Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    1973 UpStairs Lounge Arson Attack

    Date: June 24, 1973

    Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

    Culprit: Unknown (possibly Roger Nunez)

    Deaths: 32

    The gay community has been victim to some of the worst crimes in history, and the UpStairs Lounge arson attack ranks as one of the most extreme. More than 30 people lost their lives after an unknown assailant set fire to the French Quarter club in New Orleans. The attack came at the end of Pride week, but investigators do not believe that the incident was a hate crime. The prime suspect is Roger Nunez, a gay man who was humiliated after being ejected from the club. Investigators associated with the city's Fire Marshals concluded that Nunez was the likely culprit, but he committed suicide just a year after the fire and was never charged. 

    The New Orleans police department has been criticized for their handling of the situation, which many people claim was ignored due to the sexual orientation of the victims. The crime is still officially unsolved. 

  • 1974 Gulliver's Nightclub Fire
    Photo: U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    1974 Gulliver's Nightclub Fire

    Date: June 30, 1974

    Location: Port Chester, New York

    Culprit: Peter J. Leonard

    Deaths: 24

    Two dozen people perished in a '70s disco when a fire broke out in a neighboring bowling alley and spread to the club. Peter J. Leonard, 22, set the fire. He had intended to start a small fire to distract from an attempted burglary of the bowling alley, but the fire quickly spread to Gulliver's Nightclub. Leonard was tried and convicted on multiple murder counts, but those convictions were nullified after evidence surfaced that police had mistreated Leonard while he was in their custody. While two guilty verdicts for murder were overturned, Leonard did end up serving 12 years for reckless manslaughter.