FATAL THEATRE FIRE AT BOYERTOWN

FATAL THEATRE FIRE AT BOYERTOWN

There is no need to rehearse the particulars of the disaster in the Rhoades operahouse at Boyertown or to recapitulate its immediate causes. That has already been done, and the awful details are familiar to all. The less direct causes were due to the faults in the construction of the building—faults that arc to be found in nearly every theatre and operahouse (socalled) in the villages and small cities and towns in the United States and Canada, and, according to accounts as to the conditions in some of the larger cities, not excluding New York city itself, are so common, especially where moving pictures form the attracting feature, that the wonder is, not that there are so few similar catastrophes, but that, particularly in the tenement district of the metropolis of the Western world, where the authorities seem blind to the true state of affairs, they do not occur with even more fatal results. The cause of the fire, as has been fully pointed out, cannot be laid at the door of the movingpicture machine, hut to the portable footlights. These lamps were filled with kerosene oil. as is the common custom in theatres of that type. That started the fire, and if there had been even an approach to a properly disciplined lire department in Boyertown, instead of a lot of amateurs, and had there been an available team to haul the apparatus, there might have been a chance for the unfortunates in the theatre. The personnel of the department is strong as regards numbers—about too volunteers—nearly one-tenth of the whole population of the village. The fire apparatus, properly horsed and manned, consisting of a steamer, two hook and ladder trucks, two hose carriages, four chemical hand extinguishers, and 1.500 ft. of good cotton, rubberlined hose, should have been able to extinguish the fire in short order. But, first of all, the probabilities are that many of the firemen were at the show, while those who were not there had to be summoned by the fire-bell; then to get the apparatus out, and to find horses to haul it. or, failing that or accident to the horses, to haul it themselves. This they had to do in the end, the result being that one piece got away from them, caused fatal injuries to one of the firemen, and was itself put out of commission. The men were completely demoralised by the accident. Assistance was also summoned from other towns; but, since the published accounts seem to point to wrangling and rivalries among the various firemen—such as were wont in old clays to take place among the volunteer firemen in the larger cities—and more than hint, also (if reports are true), at intoxicating licpiors being consumed at the bar by the firemen, it is evident that the men were not of any account from the standpoint of fire protection. The opera house itself was an old ramshackle three-story brick building, the ground floors of which were rented out as stores; the opera house took up the second floor, and lodge rooms occupied the third. In front there was one stairway, not over wide and somewhat steep. In the rear was a small stairway and on three sides fire-escapes of the ordinary fashion. As piles of dead bodies were found lying round the windows leading to the fire-escapes, it may reasonably be inferred that the report as to the entrances being locked was true, and that thus three ways of escape were cut off from the audience, in which were very many women, girls and young children. These entrances had been locked, in order to make it easier to collect the tickets and to prevent persons from coming in without first paying their way. ‘That they were kept locked was probably’ through forgetfulness, or because is was no particular person’s, hut every one’s business (and, therefore, no one’s busi ness) to see to unlocking them. Hence, the only means of escape left were across the stage, and from that the fire had cut them off, or by the stairway. That point alotie was available for the majority, as was shown from the fact that the dead bodies were found lying four and five deep on the top of one another at that entrance. Out of the audience of 400 or more, nearly if not quite one-half perished. As to what actually caused the panic there seems to be some doubt. From the calcium light machine in the rear of the theatre and near the front stairway there came a hissing noise, but no explosion. That seems to have startled the audience and begun the stampede, and when the portable machine on which stood the kerosene oil lamps was upset, the panic was naturally intensified. One report says that the panic might have been stopped in the beginning “if one or more of the performers behind the curtain had not been curious to learn what was causing the noise. Who he, or they were, probably will never be known. Hearing the hissing and the slight commotion in the audience, one of the performers raised the curtain from the floor. In front of the curtain and serving as footlights was a tin tank, perhaps, 8 ft. long, 5 in. wide and 3 in. high. It contained coal oil and about ten lights. In raising the curtain the performer accidentally turned this tank over, and it fell to the floor within a few inches of those persons in the front row. The Rev. Adam A. Weber, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran church, for the benefit of whose Sunday school the entertainment was being given, tried to pick up the tank with the assistance of others; but before they could do so the oil flowed out and caught fire.” Others say one of the performers, in trying to run off the stage to get out bv the rear door kicked the lighting arrangement over. But, whatever the cause, there is no doubt that the faulty construction of the building was responsible for the slaughter.

Interior View of the Boyertown Fire Trap.Ruins of the Old Building Used as a Theatre, Boyertown.

No posts to display