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Theatre Fire

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Iroquois Theater Fire

On December 30, 1903 hundreds of adults and children were packed Chicago’s brand new Iroquois Theater to see a holiday showing of the popular comedy Mr. Bluebeard. The theater was the best in town, and was advertised to be completely fireproof by the owners and the architect who designed it. Little did the hundreds of patrons attending know that due to time and money constraints the theater was not as fireproof as everyone thought and it would soon become a fiery death trap. After it was all over with, more than 600 people would lose their lives making it one of the most deadly building fires in history, and forever changing fire science and safety.

Introduction On December 30, 1903 hundreds of people filled the Iroquois Theater to see a matinee showing of the comedy Mr. Bluebeard, starring a popular actor Eddie Foy. The Iroquois theater was Chicago’s newest and most polished theater and had only been open for five weeks. The theater was advertised to be fireproof by the architect who had designed it, Benjamin Marshal. Marshal had studied many theater fires from the past and thought that his design would be completely safe. It was advertised that, “The theater had more than twenty five emergency exits and could be emptied in less than five minutes” (Weird and Haunted Chicago). Even a fire resistant curtain made of asbestos was installed to keep the audience safe just in case of a fire. The theater was designed to hold 1,600 people, but was believed to be overcrowded with nearly 2,000 people for the matinee show. Out of the 2000 people, most were women and children because school was out for the holidays. Also, almost 400 actors, stagehands, and dancers crowded back stage for the performance. The hundreds of patrons had no idea that their fun day at the theater would turn out to be extremely deadly. By looking at the disaster, aftermath, causes, and mitigations it will show how such the deadly fire forever changed fire science and fire safety.
The Disaster Around 3:20pm the second act had just begun when one of the stage hands had noticed sparking from a light above, and the painted scenery canvas had ignited. As the fire started to spread a witness noticed,
“the stagehands tried to put the fire out with a small extinguisher consisting of a small tin tube of powder and tried to throw the stuff of the flame but it was considerably inadequate” (NFPA). The audience thought that the glow of the fire was just part of the show. Foy heard the commotion coming from the stage and went to see what was going on. When Foy found out it was a fire he proceeded to tell the audience to stay calm and reminded them that the Iroquois was fireproof. As Foy was trying to calm the audience some of the flaming set came crashing to the stage. Foy then realized that it was more serious than he thought and ordered the fire resistant asbestos curtain to be lowered to protect the audience. As the curtain was being lowered it made it about three quarters of the way down when it got stuck on a wire that was used in the show which left a 20 foot gap between it and the stage. People on stage began to flee out of the back exit and fresh air surged in fueling the fire making it explode into the auditorium. When the fire exploded into the auditorium it had ignited the asbestos curtain that was supposed to be fire resistant completely engulfing the stage. By this time the fire had grown into an inferno with no alarms sounding or sprinklers deploying. People began to rush for the exits, but were unable to get out because all of the exit doors opened inward. The crush of the people pushing behind kept anyone from being able to open the doors. To make matters worse some of the exits doors had been locked to keep people from sneaking into the show. Also, many members of the audience could not find the exits after the lights went out because the exits signs were not illuminated. People in the upper balcony began to make their way down stairs to escape the building only to find that the stairs had been blocked with accordion style gates to prevent them from sneaking down to better seats. Audience members in the upper balconies began to jump to the lower levels because escape was impossible with the gates blocking the stairs. Furthermore, some were able to make it to exits upstairs, but found that some of the fire escapes had not been completed. People in the building next door put out boards or ladders for some to cross over, but very few actually made it across the alley way with several falling to their death. Fire Engine Company Thirteen was just around the corner when the alarm was sounded and was on the scene very quickly. The rush of people trying to get out of the theater kept the firemen from being able to enter immediately. A witness that was at the scene stated,
“The fire department had arrived quickly and extinguished the fire in the auditorium so promptly that no more than the plush upholstery was burned off of the seats, the wooden parts all remained intact. (NFPA)
The fire was put out quickly but was very deadly to the huge crowd of people inside. In less than ten minutes the damage had been done, and hundreds of innocent lives were lost.
The Aftermath After the flames were put out the fire department was able to enter the theater, and they found a horrific scene. Hundreds of bodies were found just inside. The firemen reported,
“Many were piled up eight to ten bodies high against the doors. Also, many bodies were found in the balconies and clogging up in isle ways.”(Eastland Memorial Society) Officially 572 were confirmed to be dead on the scene and the count would later grow to 602 after people died from injuries. Many victims died from being burned to death but most died from asphyxiation, being trampled, or falling trying to escape the theater. Nearly 150 victims were found in the alley adjacent to the theater. Most of who either jumped or were just pushed off of the fire escape by the panicking crowd behind them. Out of the 602 deaths, 212 were children. Many children were found trampled to death in the isle ways and in front of the exits. It is thought that the death toll could actually be higher, but some bodies were removed by family members in the panic after the fire. “It took firemen, policemen, and even some news reporters more than five hours to carry the dead out of the theater.”(Weird and Haunted Chicago) Most of the dead were carted off by ambulances and police wagons which could hardly keep up with the seemingly endless amount of bodies. They were moved to the morgue where the medical examiners and investigators spent the next 24 hours working to identify the victims. The day after the tragedy the newspapers devoted full pages to the dead and wounded. Word spread around the country quickly making it a national tragedy. It was considered such a tragedy that:
“Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. issued an order that banned public celebration on New Year’s Eve, closing the night clubs and making forbidden any fireworks or sounding of horns. Every church and factory bell in the city was silenced and on January 2, 1904, the city observed an official day of mourning.” (Weird and Haunted Chicago)
After the incident and investigation took place and many were indicted including the owners, architect, members of the fire department, and the mayor. After the trials were completed, no one was charged with a criminal act or even fined. It is thought the judge stated it was not their fault that the stage light sparked igniting the fire. Also, Nearly 275 lawsuits were filed by families of those who were killed, but no money was ever collected from those suits. Soon after the disaster the Iroquois Theater closed down after having to file for bankruptcy.
The Causes
The actual start of the fire was considered to be the sparking stage light but there were many other reasons that the fire caused so many deaths. The Iroquois was supposed to be fireproof according to Benjamin Marshall and the owners, but was shown to be nowhere close to fireproof. The stage curtain that was supposed shield the audience in the event of a fire was supposed to be made of asbestos. It was actually made of a blend of cotton, asbestos, and other cheaper materials which made not nearly as fire resistant as it was supposed to be. The cheaper material was used just to save money and keep the building well under budget. Also, the exits were not properly marked, covered with drapes, or not lit. Most of the exit lights were ordered to be turned off because they were considered to be too distracting while watching the show. One of the few exit lights that were left on actually led into a lady’s bathroom which turned out to be a dead end. Furthermore, many of the exit doors had been locked to keep people from sneaking into the packed theater to see the show. The doors were pad locked and bolted shut which made it impossible for anyone to get out even if they were lucky enough to find the exit. Also, all of the exit doors opened inward. This was a huge reason that so many were killed. The doors not opening in the direction of egress made it impossible for anyone to get out because the push of the crowd kept anyone from being able to open them. In addition, the upper balcony had been blocked off with accordion style gates and locked. This was a policy used by the theater to keep people from sneaking down to the more expensive seats in the auditorium. Putting the gates in place and impeding a safe exit for the people in upper balcony area proved to be a very deadly decision. Considering a majority of the people who died were from the upper balconies. Also, there was no sprinkler system put into the building. The fire may have been slowed or even put out if they would have installed a sprinkler system in the building. When the building was being constructed,
“The owners decided that sprinklers were too unsightly and cost too much to have them installed.” (Weird and Haunted Chicago) Another reason the fire turned out to be so deadly was because there was no alarm box or phone installed. This was pointed out to the fire warden of the theater but nothing was done because he would be fired if it was ever brought up to the owners. Not having an alarm box or a phone was not a good decision because it only delayed the fire department’s arrival which might have been able to save many of the patrons. Along with all of the other issues, the fact that the theater was over capacity was a huge cause for so many deaths. The theater was only designed to hold 1,600 people but approximately 2,000 were in attendance that day. Having 400 people over capacity made it even more difficult for the people in the audience to move toward the exits and find a safe exit out of the theater. It was also found that the roof had not been completed in time for the opening of the theater. The vents above the stage had been sealed shut to keep out snow and rain. These vents were to be used to vent out toxic smoke and gases in the event of a fire. Finally, in the rush to open the theater the fire inspectors were paid off with free tickets to the show to overlook all of the code violations. Many of these problems were already against the fire codes, but simply overlooked because they did not want to delay the construction and opening of the best theater in Chicago. This proved to be the most deadly mistake of all. If the inspectors would have made sure everything was up to code, then it is possible that the theater would have had all of the proper fire proofing, and many lives would have been saved that day.
Although the Iroquois theater was a horrible disaster there were many thing learned from the incident that helped evolve fire safety. Many of the reasons that the fire was so deadly was already required by fire codes, but there were a few lessons learned that led to requirements now used today. After the Iroquois disaster it became a code requirement to have panic bars installed on exit doors in high occupancy spaces. This allows the doors to remain locked from the outside but can easily be opened from the inside in the event of a fire or other emergency. Also, it became a national requirement for all doors to open outward in the direction of egress. A panicked crowd pushing against the doors keeps anyone from being able to open the doors, basically sealing off the exit, making it useless. The fire department realized that many people would have made it out safely if the doors would have simply opened outward because that is where a majority of the bodies were found. Furthermore, lighted exit signs became a requirement. Many had been turned off because they were thought to distract the audience. As many as thirty exits were in the building but many could not even be located because of the darkness. It also became a requirement to have some type of fireproof curtain to separate the audience from the stage. The Iroquois was supposed to have a fireproof curtain installed but it turned out to be made of cheaper material which only fueled the fire. Having the fireproof curtain separates the audience from the fire on stage, possibly containing it a little longer to give the fire department more time to respond. Finally, capacity restrictions are now strictly enforced. If places with high occupancies do not restrict the amount of people in their establishment they will be shut down by the fire marshals. Having too many people in a building that is not rated for it could be very deadly in an emergency situation because many people may not be able to escape in time.
After looking at the disaster, aftermath, causes, and mitigations it can be said that the city of Chicago suffered a horrible tragedy because of the lack of fire safety. The City of Chicago had already suffered a horrible tragedy just thirty years earlier during the great fire of Chicago. After the tragedy at the Iroquois theater many people in the city had to deal with heartbreak all over again.
“The Iroquois Theater fire ranks as the nation’s fourth deadliest blaze and the deadliest single building fire in American history.” (Weird and Haunted Chicago) The disaster could have been completely averted if the inspectors would not have overlooked such blatant code violations and some common sense would have been used for safety. Fire and building safety codes are now enforced because of accidents that happened in the past that usually cost many innocent people their lives. Even now there are still many deadly fires because people refuse to follow simple fire codes and safety regulations. It is unfortunate that so many people had to lose their lives to learn lessons in fire safety, but many people are saved every day because of the fire codes and regulations used today.

Eastland Memorial Society (2007). Iroquois Theater Fire. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from: National Fire Protection Association (1995). A Tragedy Remembered. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from: Weird and Haunted Chicago. (2006) The Show Did Not Go On. Retrieved February 01, 2012 from: Chicago tonight. (2010) The Iroquois Theater Fire. Retrieved February 01,2012 from:

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