What is an escape room and is it safe to go to one?
Tragic deaths of five teenage girls in Koszalin have brought renewed focus on safety here
Sympathisers lay flowers and candles at the site of the escape room fire tragedy in Koszalin, Poland on January 6th. Photograph: Marcin Bielecki/EPA
The tragic deaths of five 15-year-old girls in an escape room in the Polish city of Koszalin last week has resulted in a renewed focus on the safety of such establishments across the world.
Escape rooms – still a relatively new form of recreation – operate on a simple premise: a group of people must solve a series of puzzles to “escape” the room before time runs out. They have become a popular form of entertainment, an alternative night out, in recent years.
This tragedy occurred when the five girls went to an escape room on Friday, January 4th, to celebrate one of their birthdays. In the escape room, they were locked in and tasked with solving a series of puzzles in order to get out. But the girls never escaped.
During their 60 minutes in the room, a fire broke out as a result of a leak in a gas cylinder that was being used to heat the premises, investigators have said. The five teenagers reportedly died from inhaling carbon monoxide in the small room they were trying to get out of.
A preliminary investigation has found that the escape room – which was based in a private house – failed to meet basic safety standards and had seemingly never been inspected.
The girls – who have been identified by their first names in the media as Julia, Amelia, Malgorzata, Karolina and Wiktoria – were buried on Thursday in a cemetery in Koszalin after a joint funeral took place earlier that day.
News agency Polish PAP has reported that the man who ran the escape room was arrested last Sunday and has been charged with “creating the danger of a fire in the escape room and with unintentionally causing the death of people in a fire”.
The man has allegedly denied any wrongdoing.
While escape rooms have been operating across the world for more than a decade, this is the first tragedy of its kind associated with them.
The first escape room opened in Japan more than 10 years ago, and the concept has become a money spinner worldwide since then. There are estimated to be more than 1,000 operating in Poland alone – although more than 50 have been closed for failing to meet safety standards since last week’s tragedy. There are also estimated to be more than 1,000 escape rooms in the United Kingdom, and a large number has sprung up in Ireland in recent years too.
In the past five years, escape rooms have become a popular feature in Ireland’s cities. TripAdvisor lists more than 10 in Dublin alone, with a number of escape rooms also appearing in Galway and Cork. There are also escape rooms operating in Limerick, Waterford, Athlone, Killarney and Westport, among others.
One of those escape rooms is called Escape Boats, a Dublin-based business that operates in Grand Canal Dock and offers participants the chance to take part in an escape room on a boat.
Ronan Brady, co-owner of the company, says that the tragedy in Poland has brought about a renewed focus on escape rooms as many people did not know what they were before the incident made headlines.
“It’s an absolutely horrific and tragic accident,” Brady says. “I feel absolutely awful for the girls who died and their families. What should have been a fun evening has turned their lives upside down. It has really shaken the escape room community of enthusiasts and operators worldwide.”
Brady hopes that those who are hesitant about going to an escape room after the tragedy will contact an operator and ask them about the safety measures they have in place. Safety is paramount for Escape Boats, with Brady explaining that “nobody is locked in at any time” during the game.
“Players can leave any time they like by simply walking out. All of the sections of the game have two exits and our fire exits are clearly marked. Players are never more than 12ft from an exit in the game,” he explains.
He also says that teams are monitored constantly through CCTV and audio while they are in the escape room. This is to ensure the safety of the players and also to offer hints if a team is struggling.
Furthermore, Escape Boats has a number of emergency exits which open automatically in the event of an emergency or power failure.
Brady says that escape rooms have become hugely popular in Ireland in recent years. When Escape Boats first opened in 2017, there were just three operators in Dublin. There are now more than 10.
Meanwhile, Arkadiusz Jamski, who is the founder of Asylroom Escape Rooms which operates in Galway and Limerick, says the incident in Poland is “a massive tragedy”.
Jamski – who is originally from Poland – says he does not want to judge whose fault the tragedy was, however, he expresses concern at the size of the room the girls died in, which was reportedly just over 7sq m (75sq ft).
“Seven square metres is maybe for a couple,” Jamski says. “The smallest room that we have is about 15sq m or something, and we allow around five people into that room so everyone has space to do something.”
Jamski says that escape rooms in Ireland are constantly increasing in popularity, and that, since the tragedy in Poland, customers have become more aware of their safety features. “People didn’t have a single question back then about the safety, but now the groups ask us,” he says.
Like Escape Boats, Asylroom Escape Rooms has CCTV and a member of staff watches groups at all times during the game.
“We are prepared for almost any accident, which hopefully won’t happen of course, but we are prepared,” he explains.
Jamski also says that an outside company supplies them with fire extinguishers and comes in and checks them periodically to ensure that they are working correctly.
Brady of Escape Boats hopes that the recent tragedy in Poland will make escape room operators even more safety conscious.
“If any good can come from this, it is that operators worldwide will be paying very close attention to their safety features and doing everything they can to ensure the safety of the players in the future,” he says.