The Towering Inferno (1974) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • At the opening party of a colossal, but poorly constructed, office building, a massive fire breaks out that threatens to destroy the tower and everyone in it.

  • Doug Roberts, Architect, returns from a long vacation to find work nearly completed on his skyscraper. He goes to the party that night concerned he's found that his wiring specifications have not been followed and that the building continues to develop short circuits. When the fire begins, Michael O'Halleran is the chief on duty as a series of daring rescues punctuate the terror of a building too tall to have a fire successfully fought from the ground.

  • The premiere party for the world's tallest skyscraper catches fire due to poor wiring. A determined fire chief and an honorable architect fight the fire from the outside and the inside respectively. Meanwhile, the fire engulfs floor by floor of the skyscraper, while the owner of the building struggles to find safety for the trapped party.

  • "The Towering Inferno," one in a string of disaster movies of the 1970s, was promoted as a tribute to firefighters and their heroic work. It was also among the highest-grossing box office draws of the mid-1970s. The finishing touches have just been made to the Glass Tower, a 138-story skyscraper in the heart of San Francisco. A huge celebratory gala, complete with VIP guests, has been planned to celebrate the dedication of what has been promoted as the world's tallest building. But the building's architect, Doug Roberts, suspects all is not right with the building. The contractors have used shoddy wiring, not the heavy-duty wiring he had specified. The overworked wiring develops short circuits, coincidentally enough during the height of the celebratory extravaganza; it isn't long before the Glass Tower becomes a huge towering inferno. The nearly 300 guests become trapped on the building's 135th floor, where the party takes place. Fire Chief Michael O'Hallorhan immediately devises a daring plan to rescue the trapped guests, but his efforts quickly become a battle against time and the panicked guests.

  • Duncan Enterprises, an architectural and construction empire, is readying the dedication of The Glass Tower, the world's tallest skyscrapper, located in San Francisco. Amid the activities of James Duncan and his chief architect Douglas Roberts, a circuit breaker blows in the building's main utility room - and unknown to all the surge blows another breaker that lights materials in a storage closet on fire. The electrical snafu forces Roberts to cut short a planned vacation with his fiance Susan Franklin and to confront Roger Simmons, the firm's chief electrical specialist who oversaw installation of the wiring. As the dedication party proceeds on schedule, Roberts finds the building's wiring is in worse shape than he could have expected, and it all blows up when the burning storage closet suddenly erupts into the corridors. The fire spreads with such speed that the entire San Francisco fire department must be called in, lead by Batallion Chief Michael O'Halloran, who expresses his distaste for skyscrappers to Roberts because the department can't easily combat a fire above the seventh floor. The two men still must work together, as 300 guests are trapped in the spacious Promenade room at the building's summit - and the fire continues to spread and set off gas explosions, to the point that the only chance to extinguish the fire may well kill the trapped partiers atop the Tower.

  • Construction magnate Jim Duncan (Holden) has teamed with architect Doug Roberts (Newman) to build a 135-storey structure named 'The Glass Tower' in San Francisco. On opening night, many dignitaries including a U.S. Senator, San Francisco's Mayor & his wife and others are celebrating in the ballroom/restaurant on the top floor. On the 81st floor, in a utility room, an overloaded circuit breaker starts a fire in a can of oily rags. While the party is still going on, Roberts is inspecting the wiring in the building and discovers it is very low standard - a serious fire hazard. In the Security HQ, a guard, Jernigan (Simpson) spots smoke crawling out from under a door, and activates the alarm. The San Francisco Fire Department immediately comes out, with Chief O'Hallorhan (McQueen) commanding. By now fires are starting all over the building, and the enraged Duncan discovers that his son-in-law, Simmons (Chamberlain) is the one who chose the cheaper wiring to save money. As the night goes on the fire races closer and closer to those trapped in the Tower, until the Chief discovers that detonating the water tanks above them will likely drown the fire - but will it kill the remaining men trapped inside?


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • In the opening scene, Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) travels by helicopter to San Francisco where he is chief architect for Duncan Enterprises, an architectural firm specializing in skyscrapers. Their greatest project, the Glass Tower, is 1,800 feet high and with 137-floors. It is set for dedication in San Francisco, and a lavish ceremony is scheduled to include Mayor Robert Ramsey (Jack Collins) and Senator Gary Parker (Robert Vaughn). Jim Duncan (William Holden), the company's president, is wooing Senator Parker because his support for an urban renewal effort will allow the company to build more such skyscrapers. When Roberts flies back to San Francisco for the party, he finds in his office his fiancee, magazine editor Susan Franklin (Faye Dunaway), and when the two renew romantic acquaintances, she reveals that she has received a long-sought promotion - which throws a wrench into their plans to move to the countryside to have a family.

    Doug, however, is interrupted when he gets a call from the Tower utility room in the building's massive basement. In routine checking of the building's generators, a power surge blows out a circuit breaker - and unknown to everyone the surge blows out another circuit breaker, this one on the 81st floor in a large storage closet that sends a wire flopping onto shop rags that catch fire.

    Roberts consults his pal, Will Giddings (Normann Burton), and the two confront Jim Duncan about the wiring; Duncan's chief electrical engineer is his son-in-law, Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain), and to all three men's chagrin Simmons cannot be reached by phone. While Will Giddings works with the building's chief security officer, Harry Jernigan (O.J. Simpson), on the electrical systems, Doug Roberts tracks down Roger Simmons and his wife Patty (Susan Blakley), and confronts Simmons about the wiring. Simmons, a thoroughly oily man, insists the wiring is up to city safety codes, but those codes are not sufficient for an 1,800-foot skyscraper. Simmons nonetheless blows off Doug, which agitates Patty as she doesn't want her father's business to suffer because of him.

    The dedication ceremony goes off as scheduled and the entire building is lit up for the party in the Promenade Room some 135 floors up. Doug and Will miss the party as they examine more wiring, and find it to be in worse shape than they could have imagined. Roberts gruffly orders the main utility room to shut off the power overload (in the process overruling Jim Duncan), then he and Will head to the 81st floor to check relay systems - just as security cameras detect smoke from that floor's storage closet and Harry Jernigan has the fire department called. He proceeds to 81, but before he arrives Doug, Will, and other executives spot the smoke and the fire erupts into the hallway, engulfing Will Giddings. Doug and the others smother Giddings in drapes while one man grabs a fire hose and begins spraying the flaming storage closet. Jernigan arrives and orders Doug to call an ambulance and also to call Jim Duncan and evacuate the Promenade Room while he helps get Giddings to the ground floor. But when Doug calls Duncan, Duncan insists the fire won't spread, and insists that Doug attend the ceremony.

    The fire department now arrives in force with Battalion Chief Mike O'Halloran (Steve McQueen), who has a distaste for architects because they insist on building skyscrapers even though the department can't easily fight a fire above seven floors. Despite this antagonism, Roberts and O'Halloran work together as the department sets up a forward command two floors below the fire. O'Halloran quietly goes to the Promenade Room and confronts Jim Duncan to evacuate the area, and Duncan reluctantly proceeds. But a gas line ruptures and explodes, detonating more fires around the building and reaching the main elevator banks - and catching a crowd of partiers taking the elevator down only for the elevator to stop on the fire floor and the blaze to engulf them.

    While evacuating the party guests into the elevators, Senator Parker suggests to Duncan that it will take a great deal of time to evacuate using this method, and suggests "those with stout hearts and trim waistlines" use the stairs. They try the first exit, but immediately find smoke when they open the door. They then try the other door, but it appears stuck. They enlist the aid of Carlos, the head bartender, but the three men are unable to find a way to open the fire door.

    One of the partiers, painter Lisolette Mueller (Jennifer Jones), being entertained by shady businessman Harlee Claiborne (Fred Astair), doesn't evacuate the building; she instead rushes to the 87th floor where a deaf woman, Mrs. Allbright, lives with her two children, who are students of hers. When security cameras spot Mueller, Harry Jernigan and Doug rush to the 87th floor to rescue the Allbrights. Jernigan rescues Mrs. Allbright, but the fire cuts off her two children and Lisolette Mueller, and when a gas line explodes on the stairway, Doug, Mueller, and the Allbright children must trek up 47 floors to the Promenade Room, in the process surviving a gas explosion that shatters the stairway. They eventually arrive on the 135th floor but now must find a way through a fire door sealed shut by construction cement left over from the week.

    When word of the sealed door reaches the fire department, two firefighters laboriously trek up to the 135th floor and succeed in blowing open the door, but the stairway below has been destroyed, and with the power failing, the best hope to evacuate the Promenade Room now is helicopter landing on the rooftop helipad - which disintegrates when several panicking partiers rush to the chopper and it has to swerve out of the way and promptly crashes. Now the only hope is to set up a breeches buoy from a building a block away. Doug, however, activates a gravity brake on the outside elevator, so twelve people - the women who were to be carried out on the helicopter, plus the Allbright children, Lisolette Mueller, and one of the two firemen - can at least get to the ground. This, however, goes wrong when more explosions tear the elevator off its track and throws Lisolette Mueller into a fatal fall, forcing O'Halloran to lead a laborious effort with a helicopter to wrench the elevator from its track and place it on the ground with the survivors.

    After hours of work, the fire reaches critical mass, and O'Halloran is given the grim truth - the only hope left is to explode the building's water tanks on the roof,as they hold one million gallons of water and blowing the tanks is the last hope of extinguishing the fire. This option, however, may kill the remaining partiers trapped on the Tower. O'Halloran explains the plan to Roberts, and while Roberts is explaining it to the remaining trapped guests, the fire makes itself visible.

    Simmons leads a pack of followers in a takeover of the breeches buoy. He gets in, and Senator Parker attempts to drag him out and restore order so the appropriate people can go. The weight of Parker, Simmons, and several other men carry the breeches buoy out of the window. Simmons pushes Senator Parker and several other men hanging on the breeches buoy to their deaths 135 floors down. Simmons' victory is short-lived, as the rope to the breeches buoy parts, and Simmons falls to his death as well.

    O'Halloran is helicoptered to the roof. Once there he and Roberts set to work planting explosive charges, then secure themselves with the remaining partiers in the Promenade Room for the fateful vigil before the explosion and ensuing flood. The fire is put out, with the cost of some who aren't securely tied down.

    Harlee is informed that Lisolette didn't make it, and in grieving disbelief he impotently yells out here name; Jernigan finds him and gives him her cat, Elke, whom he holds, tearing up both in grief and in shame at himself. Patty is also grief-stricken by the death of Simmons. Reunited with Susan, Doug feels the glass Tower should be left shutdown as a "shrine to all the bullshit in the world". He also accepts O'Halloran's bitter comment about architects and the need for them to consult the fire department on how to build skyscrapers.

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