Theater Was ‘Fireproof’ Like a Stove But 602 Persons Lost Their Lives

Theater Was ‘Fireproof’ Like a Stove But 602 Persons Lost Their Lives


Pages from the Past

Fire damage at Iroquois Theater extends from stage at left to first few rows of orchestra seats in this photo

—Wide World Photos.

The building was “fireproof to the same extent that an ordinary stove is; the volume of fire that might develop inside depending entirely upon the contents.” The fire damage to the building was estimated at $25,000.

What shocked the nation was that 602 persons died as a result of that fire in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago on December 30, 1903. It remains the worst theater disaster in the history of the United States.

In a report on the fire written by H. W. Bringhurst for the Pacific Coast Association of Fire Chiefs, from which the quotation in the first paragraph was taken, the charge was made that “neither owners nor inspectors had followed the specific requirements of the city ordinance as to the skylights over the stage, asbestos curtain, fireproofing of scenery, automatic sprinklers, fire apparatus (extinguishers and hose), alarm box and exits.”

Spotlight starts fire

The fire started, according to Bringhurst’s report that was printed in the March 12, 1904 issue of Fire and Water Engineering, about 3:30 p.m. during the second act of “Mr. Blue Beard,” a show that attracted a large number of children who were on their Christmas vacation. Bringhurst wrote that “sparks from a carbon arc spotlight caught in the frayed edge of some drapery a foot away—high above the stage near the arch. The fire spread, in spite of efforts to beat it out, and the stagehands became demoralized at once.

“The actors did everything possible to allay the fears of the audience, and the musicians kept their places and played on. Efforts were made to lower the asbestos curtain, but it caught on a border light when part way down.”

Comedian Eddie Foy, who was starring in the play, wrote of the tragedy and stated, “When the blaze was first discovered, two stagehands tried to extinguish it. One of them, it is said, strove to beat it out with a stick or a piece of canvas or something else, but it was too far above his head. Then he or the other man got one of those fire extinguishers consisting of a small tin tube of powder and tried to throw the stuff on the flame, but it was ridiculously inadequate.”

Urges orchestra to play

Foy said he went on stage and “began shouting at the top of my voice, ’Don’t get excited. There’s no danger. Take it easy’.” At the same time, he exhorted the orchestra leader, “Play! Start an overture—anything! But play!”

Some of the musicians had already started to flee, but others remained and played.

Bringhurst wrote, “With full confidence in the alleged fireproof character of the theater, the audience was not alarmed at first; but there were 180 inflammable drop scenes on the stage and these, with other like combustibles, developed an immense volume of flame and smoke that had not vented, except into the auditorium and up to the open ventilator over the gallery. When the people found themselves actually scorching and suffocating, the fearful panic began, and probably no scheme of stairs and exits could then have prevented loss of life.”

Foy said of the exits, “Few of them were marked by lights; some even had heavy portieres over the doors, and some of the doors were locked or fastened with levers which no one knew how to work.

Tragedy on fire escape

“When one balcony exit was opened,” Foy continued, “those who surged out on the platform found that they could not descend the steps because flames were leaping from the exit below them. Some painters in a building across a narrow court threw a ladder over to the platform. A man started crawling over it. One end of it slipped off the landing, and he fell, crushed on the stones below. The painters then succeeded in bridging the gap with a plank, and just 12 people crossed that narrow footpath to safety.

“The twelfth was pursued by a tongue of flame which dashed against the wall of the opposite building—and no more escaped. The iron platform was crowded with women and children. Some died right there; others crawled over the railing and fell to the pavement. The iron railings were actually torn off some of the platforms.”

The theater permit allowed 1602 seats, “but 1774 were in place,” Bringhurst wrote, “and when the fire broke out, nearly 300 persons were standing behind the last rows. There were 22 exits of all kinds, but many were not available.”

The story of the fire printed in the January 9,1904, issue of Fire and Water Engineering stated, “The so-called asbestos curtain was blocked in its descent by a steel (lighting) reflector carelessly left open by a stagehand, and while one end of it got within 5 feet of the stage, the other hung 20 feet above it, forming a flue through which swept the deadly flame-waves.”

Curtain of cheap material

This report on the fire declared, “The curtain itself, which was practically destroyed by fire, it is said, was not of asbestos, but of burlap, coated with asbestos paint—a very cheap substitute for what it should have been. Under this, the flames poured out upon the audience, as no one assisted the one scene shifter on the stage to liberate the curtain.”

Main floor plan of the Iroquois Theater.

Of those who died, Bringhurst said in his report, “about half perished in or near their seats, and most of the others were entangled together in the dark passages, stairways and blind exits.

“The first alarm was given by a man running down the alley to the station of Engine 13 in the next block. The department responded promptly to this and other calls, but an alarm from the theater itself would have saved two or three minutes and many precious lives. There was nothing but praise for the quick and effective work of the firemen, and to give an idea of what they had to do, it may be stated that one hose wagon carried away over 60 bodies of victims.

Fire easily extinguished

The fire itself was described as “comparatively trifling” in the Fire and Water Engineering article, which explained, “The flames were chiefly confined to the stage and the seats immediately in front of the proscenium, and were easily extinguished by the firemen under Fire Marshal (William) Musham, whose chief care was to rescue the perishing and, with the police, to carry out the hundreds of the slain.”

Other reports indicated that about 70 percent of those who died were in the gallery and most of the others were in the balcony. Relatively few in the orchestra level died because of the better proximity of exits. Most of the bodies were in the aisles going to the balcony corridor to the main entrance on Randolph Street. Bodies were piled three and four high.

When a door at the rear of the stage was opened by those fleeing the flames devouring the scenery and drops, which were not flame-resistant, a powerful draft bellied the “asbestos” curtain over t he orchestra area and let flame and hot gases pass over the audience. Both a ventilator over the main auditorium and the uppermost alley exit at the back of the gallery were open, and this increased the flow of lethal gases toward the audience.

The auditorium was wider than it was long, so the balcony and gallery were closer to the stage than might be considered normal. As a result, the upsweeping fire gases had their most deadly effect on those in the balcony and gallery.

“It was a case of everyone for himself, so far as concerned the stagehands and those charged with seeing that the fire did not reach the auditorium of the theater,” Fire and Water Engineering commented, “and had it not been for the heroism of the comedian, Eddie Foy, who nearly lost his life and was severely burned in warning the audience while the flames surrounded him, the loss of life would have been still more terrible. . .

Balcony seats, show effect of hot fire gases that rose above the main floor of the Iroquois Theater.stage area next to proscenium arch is where fire is reported to have started.

Wide World Photos.

“Still, so slight comparatively was the damage from the fire itself to the building that the doors leading out to the main entrance were not all burned. Those to the east were charred, but those to the west were not even scorched. That shows that the fire came from the direction of the stage and was forced towards the exits leading to Randolph Street . . . The sudden extinction of all the lights also added to the horrors of the scenes.”

Explaining that the balcony and gallery where most of the deaths occurred, had a combined seating capacity of between 800 and 900, the Fire and Water Engineering article charged, “There the ushers and unintelligent policemen forced the panic-stricken people away from the exits, assuring them that there was no danger. The exits themselves, of which there were 40 (sic) or more, were probably too narrow for safety during such a rush and were, also, not all open, some being securely locked from within. The theater was considerably overcrowded, too, it appears, beyond its normal seating capacity.”

Bodies block exits

Fire fighters couldn’t get into some of the gallery exits because they were choked with bodies. After a fire fighter reported this situation to Musham, the chief fire marshal ordered his men to abandon their efforts to extinguish the fire and concentrate on rescuing those inside the theater.

It was reported that one of the theater owners maintained that no lives would have been lost if everyone had remained seated after someone had yelled, “Fire!” However, after fire fighters worked their way into the theater, they found many persons in their seats—and they were dead.

The Iroquois Theater, completed as the plushiest theater in Chicago on November 23, little more than a month before the fire, was described in the program for “Mr. Blue Beard” as “absolutely fireproof.”

The building itself was of fire-resistant construction. The balcony and gallery were of cantilevered steel and concrete and, Fire and Water Engineering reported, “on the stage, every part of the permanent structure, even to the fly galleries and platform or bridge for scene shifters, was of steel. Unfortunately, however, the hangings, and the scenes themselves were not of fire-resisting material.”

Lessons learned

  1. Stages must be protected by automatic sprinkler systems. This was required by a Chicago ordinance, which was not enforced.
  2. Exits must be unobstructed and exit doors must be able to be opened from the inside whenever the theater is in use. Some exits were covered by heavy drapes and others could not be opened at the Iroquois Theater.
  3. All exits must have signs that can be seen at all times, and there must be directional signs to guide people to exits that are not visible to them.
  4. Emergency lighting is a necessity in theaters and other places of public assembly. Shortly after the fire started, the house lights failed in the Iroquois Theater.
  5. Adequate first aid fire fighting equipment and a fire alarm system must be installed and they must be maintained in operating condition.
  6. There must be a fire-resistant curtain at the proscenium opening of the stage that will close automatically without applied power. The curtain must keep the glow from a severe fire on stage from showing on the auditorium side for five minutes.
  7. Fire escapes should not be exposed to the danger of flames coming from doors or windows on lower floors. Flames from a lower exit blocked the use of a fire escape from one balcony at the Iroquois.
  8. Selling of tickets to standees overloads exit facilities and reduces the chances of orderly evacuation of a theater or auditorium.
  9. Electrical facilities must comply with the electrical code. It was reported that the “Mr. Blue Beard” company had its own stage lighting equipment that frequently blew circuit fuses.
  10. Employees of theaters should be trained in fire exit drills. It was reported that the ushers at the Iroquois had no such training.
  11. Scenery, curtains and other textile materials in theaters must be flameproof.
  12. Automatic vents must be installed over a stage.

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