Friday, December 29, 2006

This Date in Fire History - Dec 30

Note: This is being posted early as I will probably be horrendously busy tomorrow.

103 years ago today, a fire at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago claimed over 600 lives (death counts range from 600 to 603, depending on the source; the Cook County Coroner’s Inquest Record indicates 601, while the National Fire Protection Association lists 602).

There is a tremendous amount of information available on the Iroquois fire, for a number of reasons:

  • The incredible loss of life
  • The victims were primarily women and children
  • The corruption and callousness of private business interests and public officials
  • A relatively large number of survivors
  • The fire occurred in a major city, with an active (and muckraking) press
  • The newness of the structure at the time of the fire

The Story in a Nutshell

The Iroquois Theatre had been open about a month (the Chicago Public Library says “less than a month,” while an article on says “five weeks”). The 1724-seat theatre had 1900 patrons for a “standing room only” matinee performance of the comedy “Mr. Blue Beard, Jr.”, starring Eddie Foy and Annabelle Whitford. Fire erupted when an arc light ignited a canvass scenery “flat”. An on-duty (house) fireman, armed only with two tubes of “Kilfyres” powder, was unable to extinguish the fire in its incipient stage. Attempts to lower an asbestos fire curtain failed when the curtain hung up in wooden tracks, allowing the fire to spread to the auditorium. In the ensuing panic, approximately 600 people – mostly women and children – died, from smoke inhalation, burns, or trampling. The fire itself lasted about 30 minutes, but its effects are still being felt today.

The Iroquois Theatre Building

The theatre itself was “a magnificent palace of marble and mahogany, a ‘virtual temple of beauty,’" according to the Getnet account mentioned above. The theatre was also described as “absolutely fireproof”, which was true – the building itself was hardly damaged (it reopened less than a year later as the Colonial Theatre).

The theatre had at least thirty exits, but some were barred by iron gates, while others were locked. Those gates that were unlocked had unfamiliar and easily-overlooked latches, which were difficult to open. Many of the doors opened into the building; the panicked throngs pressing against the doors prevented them from opening (as was the case 40 years later, at the Cocoanut grove, bodies were found piled against these doors). Additionally, there had been no training for theatre staff in fire procedures.

An abysmal history of theatre fires had already resulted in numerous fire and life safety requirements for theatres: fireproof curtains (usually asbestos), fire extinguishers, hose and standpipe stations, etc. However, then (as now), corruption was rampant in Chicago, and bribed officials allowed the theatre to open without these vital safeguards.

Crowd Behavior

Most sources give the audience size as approximately 1900 at the time of the fire, although star Eddie Foy, in a first-hand account subsequently published in the NFPA Journal, said, “The testimony of others indicated there were many more standees than admitted by the management, and it was widely believed that there were at least 2,100 in the house – some reports claimed 2,300.” There were also approximately 400 cast and crew-members.

When he first spotted the fire, Foy urged the crowd to remain calm and shouted for the stage manager to drop the asbestos curtain, but the curtain jammed partway down. It was at roughly this point that cast and crew members started escaping through rear doors. The stage doors, however, admitted fresh air, blowing the flames under the partially-lowered asbestos curtain and into the seating area. Once the fire spread into the auditorium itself, panic ensued. The staff librarians at Chicago Public Library, in their compilation of data, describe what happened next:

Even though it was outside the fire area, trampled bodies were piled ten high in the stairwell area where exits from the balcony met the exit from the main floor. More fatalities occurred when fire broke out underneath an alley fire escape. People above the fire jumped. The first to jump died as they hit the hard pavement. Later jumpers landed on the bodies and survived. The same scenario happened as patrons jumped from the balcony to the main floor of the theater.

In many ways, this is similar to the panic exhibited by crowds in other large fires such as Cocoanut Grove and the Beverly Hills Supper Club.

The Investigation

The Getnet article discusses the investigation and subsequent legal proceedings:

A coroner's inquest began within a week. Over two hundred witnesses testified. It was a national sensation, exposing unbelievable laxity on the part of the theater and city officials charged with public safety. Hearings revealed that 'complimentary' tickets motivated city inspectors to ignore the fire code and let the theater open. Theater principals, building owners, Chicago Mayor Carter H. Harrison and others were indicted, but those cases eventually were dismissed on technicalities. The only person to serve a jail term was a tavern keeper whose nearby saloon was used as a temporary morgue. He was convicted of robbing the dead.

The Aftermath

As is generally the case after a major fire with significant loss of life, there was a dash to “ensure this never happens again.” Chicago’s Mayor Harrison shuttered almost 200 theatres, halls, and churches for months, leaving 6,000 people unemployed. The new fire code required exit doors that opened out, clearly marked exits, steel fire curtains, and staff drills.

Of course, after the initial horror had passed, people once again became complacent, believing it would “never happen to them.” Inspectors once again became lax (or corrupt) and building and business owners again became more concerned about gate-crashers.

The result?

Cocoanut Grove, 492 dead. The Rhythm Club, 207 dead. Rhodes Opera House, 170 dead. Beverly Hills Supper Club, 165 dead. The Station Night Club, 100 dead.

Factors Contributing to the Loss of Life

As is so often the case, many of the deaths at the Iroquois Theatre were caused by "the usual suspects": locked or blocked fire exits, overcrwding, and poorly-trained staff. Although the theatre had a sufficient number of exits on paper, the fact that many exits were barred or used the unfamiliar latches resulted in insufficient exits in practice. Additionally, overcrowding -- whether the roughly 200 standees cited in most sources, or the almost 600 claimed by Eddie Foy -- is asking for trouble (Cocoanut Grove and Beverly Hills were both also grossly overcrowded).

Lessons Learned

What can we do to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again? While it is easy to pin all responsibility on others, we are ultimately responsible for our own safety. The simplest way to fulfill that responsibility is to be aware of your surroundings. When you enter a place of public assembly, whether it be a church, a restaurant, a night club, or a theatre, look for these things:

  • Fire exits: should be plainly marked; plan a route to several exits, and assume vision may be reduced or eliminated; don’t plan on getting out the same way you came in (that’s what killed many of the victims at the Station)
  • Fire extinguishers: not a panacea, as I’ve pointed out in the past, but they have saved countless lives; and know how to use them
  • Fire sprinklers: look for the heads sticking down from the ceiling; if you don’t see them, leave (I refuse to patronize a business that isn’t fully sprinklered).

After the Station fire, the State of Rhode Island mandated full fire sprinkler systems for all bars and nightclubs, regardless of when they were built – no more “grandfathering.” All states should follow their example.

Why the emphasis on sprinklers? Simple.

There has never – NEVER – been a multiple-fatality fire in a fully sprinklered building (assuming the system was operational and the fire was within design parameters of the system).

Fire sprinkler systems have been protecting factories since the 1870’s. Shouldn’t we demand the same protection for ourselves?

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