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The Iroquois Theatre Fire

The Iroquois Theatre Fire ~ Chicago 1903

When the opulent Iroquois Theatre on Chicago’s North Side opened in November 1903, it was one of the biggest and grandest theatres in the country. During a matinee performance on December 30, 1903, of a popular musical called Mr. Bluebeard, the theatre was filled to capacity, with over two thousand attendees and hundreds of people crowding the “standing-room only” areas at the back of the theatre. Since it was a matinee, the crowd consisted mostly of women and children.

At about 3:15 p.m., late in the second acting during a dance number in the play, an arc light shorted out on the stage and ignited a muslin curtain. A stage hand attempted to douse the fire with a chemical called “Kilfyre,” but the flames spread quickly to the fly gallery high above the stage where thousands of square feet of flammable scenery flats were hung. A fireproof asbestos curtain, which was supposed to be used in the unlikely event of a fire onstage, malfunctioned and would not lower as it was supposed to.

When people in the audience realized what was happening and began to try to leave the three levels of the theatre, they discovered that many exit doors couldn’t be opened because of unfamiliar bascule locks. Some people were trapped in “dead ends” or while attempting to open “doors” that were in reality windows designed to look like doors. In the panic that followed, many people were trampled and crushed to death.  

Many of the performers in the show were able to exit the theatre through a coal hatch and through windows in the dressing rooms, while others attempted to escape through the west stage door; the door opened inwards and became jammed as people pressed against it. A passing railroad agent saw what was happening and removed the door using tools he always carried with him. 

When the huge double freight doors used for scenery were opened in the north wall, a blast of cold air rushed into the building and created an enormous fireball that moved out into the theatre, incinerating everything in its path. Many people were killed in the seats they were sitting in, without ever having the chance to stand up.  

When the fire was extinguished, the building was still standing but was badly gutted by the fire. Six hundred and two people died in the fire and many others were injured, making the Iroquois Theatre fire the worst single-building fire in American history. Many of the victims died of smoke inhalation or from being trampled to death, rather than by the flames.  Thompson’s restaurant next to the theatre served as a temporary morgue. People lined up on the street outside to view the bodies to see if their loved ones were among the dead.

As is usually the case in such tragedies, the Iroquois was found, after the fact, to be lacking in many important safety considerations. Exits were poorly marked and in some cases unusable. Fire escapes collapsed as people were trying to leave the theatre, adding to the carnage. There were blind hallways and dead ends and barred passages, leading to confusion. There were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections to be used in the event of fire—all of this in a building that had been billed as “absolutely fireproof.” A few years later, in 1912, a similar boast was made about a luxurious passenger ship. Titanic was billed as “unsinkable,” and we all know what happened to it.

Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp

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