Sunday, January 13, 2008

This Date in Fire History - Jan 13

Today marks the 100th anniversary of yet another tragic fire, one that killed almost one-tenth of a town’s population, and directly affected everyone for miles around. Yet, because it happened in a small town near Philadelphia, instead of a major city like Chicago, Atlanta, or New York, very few people are aware of it.

Even more shamefully, after mentioning this fire many times over the years, I just discovered that I – along with many others – had been misspelling the name of the building where the fire occurred.

Many writers have mentioned the Rhodes Opera House fire. Even the National Fire Protection Association – the world’s leading fire safety and prevention organization – calls it the Rhodes fire. The building where the fire occurred, however, was owned by the Rhoads family (or maybe Rhoades, although the Boyertown Historical Society omits the “e”).

Additionally, it appears the opera house itself not named for the Rhoads family; the Boyertown Opera House merely rented the second floor of the Rhoads Building.

Boyertown, PA, is a small town (population 3702, according to the town’s website) located twenty miles east of Reading and 41 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

On the evening of January 13, 1908, about 350 people were in the Opera House to see a production of The Scottish Reformation, a religious play sponsored by a local church. According to the New York Times account of the tragedy, stereopticon operator H. W. Fisher “must have turned the wrong valve. There was a long, drawn out hissing noise that frightened the women and children.” In the ensuing rush, someone overturned a kerosene tank, which fueled the stage footlights; the kerosene ignited and set fire to the scenery and curtains.

The fire flashed over quickly, causing the audience to panic. Insufficient exits, locked exits, flammable decorations and furnishings, and the lack of a fire sprinkler system resulted in 170 deaths. Additionally, the two existing fire escapes were difficult to use, since escaping patrons would have to climb over a three-foot window sill. This would have been virtually impossible for an audience that has been described as primarily older women and young children – two populations that have (for different reasons) limited mobility.

According to the Times, the proportion of victims was about nine females to one male.

Contemporary news reports tell of men trampling women and children in their rush to get out. And – as we have seen at the Iroquois Theatre, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the Cocoanut Grove, the Rhythm Club, the Beverly Hills Supper Club and the Station Nightclub – rescuers found bodies piled high by the primary entrance.

This fire affected the Boyertown community much more than it would have in a major city. Boyertown, at the time, had about 2000 inhabitants; the small-town setting ensured that everybody in town had a personal relationship to at least one victim.

WFMZ-TV (Channel 69, Philadelphia) produced a one-hour documentary on the fire; it may be available for purchase through the station.

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