The 1937 Fox vault fire was a major fire in a 20th Century Fox film storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey on 9 July 1937. 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 present.
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.
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, compounding 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.
When Little Ferry, New Jersey contractor William Fehrs was hired to construct a film storage facility in 1934, he designed the structure to be fireproof. The building had 12-inch (30 cm) outer walls and a reinforced concrete roof. Internally, it was divided into forty-two individual vaults, each enclosed behind a steel door and separated with 8-inch (20 cm) brick interior walls. The local fire department confirmed Fehrs's fireproofing. Despite the potential for fire, the facility was located in a residential neighborhood, and was equipped with neither a fire sprinkler system nor mechanical ventilation.
Film processing company DeLuxe Laboratories owned the building, and rented it to 20th Century Fox to store the silent films acquired from Fox Film Corporation during the merger.
Northern New Jersey experienced a heat wave in July 1937, with daytime temperatures of 100 °F (38 °C) and warm nights. The sustained heat contributed to nitrate decomposition in the film vaults, and the building's ventilation was inadequate to prevent a dangerous buildup of gasses. At some time shortly after 2:00 a.m. on the 9th, spontaneous ignition occurred in the vault at the building's northwest corner. Local truck driver Robert Davison observed flames coming from one of the structure's window vents and, within five minutes, used a municipal fire alarm call box to report the fire.
Davison then attempted to awaken the residents of the surrounding houses, many of whom were already alerted to the situation by the noise and intense heat. As decomposition gasses in additional vaults ignited, bursts of fire shot over 100 feet (30 m) horizontally across the ground from the windows, and a similar distance into the air from the building's roof vents. Anna Greeves and her two sons, John and Charles, were caught in one such "sheet of flame" while attempting to flee the area. All three were seriously burned; 13-year-old Charles eventually died from his injuries on 19 July. Other area families were able to escape unharmed as the fire spread to five neighboring residences and destroyed two vehicles.
Little Ferry firefighters first arrived at 2:26 a.m., followed by additional companies from Hawthorne, Ridgefield Park, River Edge, and South Hackensack. Despite 150 men employing fourteen hose streams, the fire was not extinguished until 5:30 a.m.
Property damage was estimated at $150,000—200,000. All of the film in the facility was destroyed; more than 40,000 reels of negatives and film prints burned to ashes inside their film cans. Fifty-seven truckloads of burned film were hauled from the site to have their silver content extracted. Each can contained about five cents worth of silver; the salvaged metal returned $2,000.
Although 20th Century Fox officials at the time remarked that "only old films" were destroyed, the 1937 Fox vault fire is now understood as a significant loss of American film heritage. Film historian Anthony Slide called the destruction of the Fox Film Corporation vault "the most tragic" American nitrate fire. The highest quality examples of every Fox film produced prior to 1932 were destroyed. Although copies located elsewhere allowed some of these films to survive, mostly as lower-quality prints or mere fragments of film, more than 75% of Fox's feature films from before 1930 are completely lost. Total or near lost filmography rates occurred for Fox performers like Theda Bara, Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, George Walsh and notorious celebutante performer Evelyn Nesbit amongst many others, who made less than a score of films for the Studio. Much Tom Mix material is also lost after he moved to Fox in 1918. The Little Ferry vaults also held works by other film studios which had contracted with Fox for distribution. Educational Pictures had more than 2,000 negatives and prints destroyed, including the negatives of Buster Keaton's silent films with the company. Also present was the original negative of D. W. Griffith's Way Down East (which Fox had purchased with the intent of remaking), the negative for the controversial Christie Productions sponsored film The Birth of a Baby, and films by smaller studios such as Atherton Productions, Peck's Bad Boy Corporation, Principal Pictures, and Serial Producing. Archival material intended for the Museum of Modern Art's Film Library was lost as well.
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.