Remembering the second worst fire in U.S. history

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The Iroquois Theatre fire of December 30, 1903 was unequivocally a horrible disaster where twice as many of the some 300 who died in the ‘Great Chicago Fire of 1871’ lost their lives. Many bad decisions (mostly by the ‘syndicate’ which owned the theater) combined at the same time to create a ‘perfect storm’ of negligence- and dare we say stupidity- that combined to endanger a huge amount of people. That night the theater was packed above its 1500-person occupancy with hundreds in standing room. The crowd was filled with an unusual number of children and women that night. There was a strong wind outside. Being December in Chicago, it was not fire season. These few things in and of themselves were of not enough concern to those of the audience who put their trust and faith in the theater owners who so lavishly decorated the theater. You can’t judge a book by its covers or a theater by its decor, because unfortunately, the theater owners were at the very least extremely negligent, with greed being the most likely motivator of said negligence.

Some things can't be undone.

Apparently, they simply did not want to invest in a proper system of patron safety, this being the same city which had been absolutely gutted by fire (an area 4×1 miles in the heart of Chicago)32 years earlier. Perhaps it was because the owners were not old enough to remember 1871 that they did not prepare better and skimped on vital safety. Or they were so greedy they decided to risk it.

It is said that after 1871 fire code ordinances were ‘greatly improved’, but this event would be the proof in the pudding that there was still a long way to go.

It seems when boiled down to the reasons for the poor choices of the Theatre three human shortcomings are involved negligencecorruption, and lack of both foresight and basic human compassion. There is greed as well in many choices, on maybe one level higher up the scale.

First let’s talk about negligence:

Let’s start with the decision of the fire warden of the theater, who, when told by a Chicago Fire Captain about the woeful state of readiness, said he didn’t want to get fired for bringing it up to the owners. Doesn’t matter that he had one job to do and that was prevent everyone to succumbing to fire and smoke, no, this guy was probably hired with the purpose of keeping status quo (bordering already on corruption, as you see).

Next there was the decision to let some of the 2000+ person audience to sit in the aisles, blocking the doors. Enough said there (greed).

Then, there’s the arc light: a short circuit (or simply poor wiring) and a too close muslin curtain later and you have an instant fire. Literally everything here so far is negligence. Improperly wired lights close enough to a wick is never good. From there, you have hung ‘several thousand square feet of highly flammable painted canvas scenery flats‘ and you have an outright instant inferno.

Did they pull the fire alarm, and order an immediate evacuation of the entire building? Nope. There was no fire alarm, and there was no escape plan. In these moments as the fire began to roar and actors attempted to calm the children, prospects just went from bad to worse for the poor souls stuck in the Iroquois Theatre.

A couple people did leave the building to pull fire alarms outside the building, but no one else could leave. It is supposed that the ‘plan’ was for the fire to be extinguished by the fire brigade before killing anyone, and the show could resume. This plan was obviously negligent homicide on a scale never seen before.

Flash back a moment to the building of the Iroquois: abiding by the codes of the time to a nominal degree in one area, the owners had relied too much on their fire curtain to work properly.  They skimped on other things obviously as well, like ‘proper’ fire extinguishers (which admittedly were in infancy), water hookups, proper wiring, fire escapes, easier to use locks, a fire evacuation plan, and so much more. It seems their money and though budget was entirely focused on form and none on function, or in this case ‘function’ by our standards was not the same. The entire experience was meant to impress; to be comparable to a Broadway show, most likely. It makes what they neglected no less excusable.

The purpose of the fire curtain which the put so much trust in is simple; if the stage does erupt in a gigantic fireball, incinerating your actors, you can at least drop the fire curtain (filled with asbestos) to allow your audience to escape.

Here is where the negligence meets corruption, because even if the curtain was dropped (which it wasn’t since it snagged partially on a light reflector that wasn’t supposed to be there) it would have been all but useless as the manufacturer of the curtain decided to skimp on the asbestos and add in wood pulp to save on costs. Whether the theater owners knew about this is unknown. Half strewn, the curtain ignited.

Then there were the smoke doors. This theater had them. Smoke doors are on the roof or upper area of the building and are supposed to open in the event of a fire, allowing heat and smoke to pour out of the building, allowing fresh air to come in. Did this theater implement their proper usage? Of course not, they were fastened shut tightly.

This night would one day come to be the lesson to teach the world the importance of these basics of fire safety.  But the ordeal for the people inside had only begun. When the first exit door was opened, oxygen poured in with the strong wind, creating a fireball with nowhere to go; the heat must have been unbearable. Had the smoke doors been open the flames would have been able to escape, giving people more time to exit.

As for the exits: these did not work properly. Right now, you may be thinking: how hard is it to invest in doors that work easily and properly, for all the love? Well, in the early 1900s, not as easy as you may think. First, these fire exits were hidden behind curtains, which surely fits into the stupidity category, but there’s more. The doors had bascule locks, which probably looked like this abomination of a locking device.

According to all accounts there was major problems getting the doors open. For in 1903, they still didn’t even require doors to swing out to egress, so a mass of bodies trying to get out won’t clamp the doors shut. Unfortunately, that was what was happening.

Being panicked, people were unable to open these in a timely manner, with no help from the ushers (who get their special mention later). Eventually a few were opened by people who were familiar with the locks, but the theater was burning down -badly- by this time. People were almost definitely dying already from falling debris and inhalation of smoke.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, you had windows that looked like doors and were probably reinforced with impenetrable wrought iron. It’s almost a sure thing the terror was contagious at a certain point, despite pleas from the actors to stay calm. 

The Iroquois had no fire alarm box, no device to call for help. There was no sprinkler system, which existed at the time. The fire extinguishers they did have proved entirely useless in fighting fire.

Now it’s time for stupidity, the close cousin of negligence.  There was no evacuation plan, so evacuation permission was not given till it was way, way too late. To make matters worse, there were some ushers that, without being given a fire escape plan, and seeing the entire theater on fire, still refused to help open the doors to escape. It is unknown how hard if any the ushers fought back to keep people inside, but it is understood that on the whole they were of very little help.

In the end, there is not much thoughtfulness needed to understand stupidity or it’s causes other than that no single person is ever immune to dishing it out, and so it is a forgivable if unfortunate human shortcoming.

Last, there is the horrible stink of corruption. Though never proven in court, it was alleged fire officials were bribed in some way to overlook the many egregious code violations (occupancy being the most glaring). Then you have the previously mentioned curtain manufacturer. And how corrupt was the fire warden, the guy whose one job it was to keep people from not burning? Corrupt enough.

The matter of the fire escapes not being finished is another that goes into corruption territory. Over a hundred people lost their lives directly due to the north end fire escape not being completed (this may have slowed the evacuation, contributing to the total death count).

It’s worth noting that in this nightmare of bad fortune and terror that one incredibly lucky thing happened that saved many lives. Remember how the doors opened in, and so could not be opened? A passing railway agent on foot saw the doors trying to be opened, and with the tools he happened to be carrying on his person, unhinged the doors and allowed people to escape. This nameless man was one of several heroes that night, the others being the two or three men who managed to open some escape doors, and surely others who’ve passed into obscurity.

After the loss of some 600 lives in perhaps the very worst manner, laws finally became more stringent on fire around the world. Communications had barely caught on to the point that this information spread rapidly, this being around 70 years before even the birth of the internet. And yet even today with information being as available as ever we have terrible fires in nightclubs and other public places, with negligence being the operable keyword.

Fortunately, nowadays building owners are far more aware of the dangers of fire and the importance of fire safety. Perhaps one thing that can be said at the end of this sad and terrible story is that if you see something, say something to someone who can and should address it. Being an inconvenience in the name of safety- especially in egregious circumstances- can be both an act of bravery and benevolence.

We’ll wrap on this note: “…the only person to serve any jail time in relation to this disaster was a nearby saloon owner who had robbed the dead bodies while his establishment served as a makeshift morgue following the fire.”

This preventable human disaster, like all preventable disasters, was the effect of human shortcomings on innocent, random people. This one disaster helped prove to people once and for all (or at least for a moment) this was true. One positive to memorializing and remembering such disasters however is that people can learn from past mistakes. 

This was the worst peace-time fire disaster of ‘modern’ recorded history. It would take nearly a century before a terror act changed that, and everything else for the United States. But before the days of terrorism there was lawlessness and even worse shameful corruption, and this lawlessness permeated society. No one was safe.

A passing railway agent on foot saw the doors trying to be opened, and with the tools he happened to be carrying on his person, unhinged the doors and allowed people to escape.

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