The Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903, remembered
The year 2003 was the centenary of the days when the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago caught fire. New books recalled it, and I summarized them for Illinois Issues. A grim piece about a grim event, and hard to write.
Reviewed: To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire by David Cowan and John Kuenster (Ivan R. Dee Inc., 1996); Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903 by Anthony P. Hatch (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2003); Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 by Nat Brandt (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003).
In Gaily Gaily, Ben Hecht recalled a colleague from their days as reporters at the old Chicago American. His pal had been up all night covering a bad fire in the Loop and had fallen asleep atop a long table in the back room of a nearby bar.
Soon after, firemen had discovered fifty more charred bodies in the theater debris. Twenty of the bodies were brought into the saloon and piled on the table where Larry was napping. It was presumed that Larry was one of the corpses previously fetched out of the theater.
Larry's awakening and his struggles to crawl out from under a pile of charcoal-black corpses left a curious mark on his character. Thereafter, he felt a chill in his bones, however hot the room or the day. As a result, he always wore his winter overcoat and muffler through the summer.
Hecht's friend was not the only Chicagoan haunted by memories of the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903. The Iroquois stood in the Loop on West Randolph just off State. When it opened that fall, it was the latest word in opulence. On December 30, a holiday matinee performance of a popular stage comedy left it crammed with a ticket-holder in each of its 1,724 seats, an estimated 200 people standing in the audience, and nearly 300 performers and crew. A faulty light on stage ignited some scenery, setting off a firestorm that raced through the brand-new building.
The scenes that ensued are hard to read about, and must have been hell to witness. Bodies in places piled ten feet deep. People leaping from the topmost exits to their deaths in an alley below, where the corpses of predecessors cushioned their fall. The screams of the hideously burned as they cried out for death. Parents trying to discern a child's familiar face in what looked like burnt bacon as they toured makeshift morgues. The dead eventually numbered 602—then and now the highest death toll of any building fire in U.S. history. Two of three victims were female, one in three were children. No wonder there was no blowing of horns at midnight in Chicago on the eve of 1904.
The Iroquois Theatre had been advertised as fireproof, and so it proved. The building was barely damaged by the fire and was quickly reopened under a new name. Its interior fittings, alas, were anything but fireproof. The fire might have been confined to the stage, where it began, long enough that people could have left the building—if the safety systems that were supposed to have been installed for that purpose had worked properly. They did not. The asbestos fire curtain could not be fully lowered because of protruding equipment; skylights installed to vent smoke from the stage had been clamped shut by builders; no hooks were available to pull down flaming scenery before the fire spread.
Even an unconstrained fire needn't have killed so many. In the rush to open the building to holiday theatergoers, fire hoses had not been hooked up to a water supply, nor were axes available to break open locked or stuck doors, as required. Five weeks after it opened, theater staff had not had a fire drill to familiarize themselves with evacuation procedures. Some doors still had no exit signs on them, while other exits were hidden behind draperies. Escape from the gallery to lower floors was barred by padlocked gates installed by management to keep people in the cheap seats from sneaking into more expensive seats in the lower balcony; several outside doors had been likewise locked against gatecrashers.
The shock of the deaths awakened municipalities across the nation to the need to toughen fire safety standards for theaters. Now-standard equipment—a fireproof steel screen across the stage, outward-opening doors, lighted exit signs, sprinklers—became more common in theaters everywhere, in spite of the resistance of owners who liked to boast about the safety of their premises more than they liked to pay for it.
Indeed, by 1958 it was safer to send a child to a matinee in a Chicago movie house than it was to send her to many a local school. No one bragged that Our Lady of the Angels, an aging Roman Catholic grade school on the West Side, was fireproof. In fact, it would have been hard to build a school that was likely to burn more efficiently. Our Lady was built entirely of combustible materials, save for its brick walls. It was only one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of older schools that had open stairwells, no sprinkler systems, no fire doors on the second floor and fire alarms that rang only inside, not at the local firehouse. When flames raced through Our Lady that winter, 92 children and three nuns died in minutes.
These two fires killed more than twice as many people as did the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The deaths were as avoidable as they were horrible. Officially, one fire was ruled an accident, the cause of the other "undetermined," but few independent observers then or now would not conclude that the deaths were crimes, however the fires started.
The provisions made for theatergoers' safety by the owners and managers of the Iroquois were inadequate to the point of irresponsibility, yet the owners blamed the deaths on the victims. It was the patrons' descent into panic, they said, that led to the carnage. Mayor Carter Harrison retorted that people would not have panicked if equipment that was supposed to have been installed to allow their safe and speedy exit had been working.
In the case of Our Lady, the crime was negligence due to the parsimony of church officials and to public officials who catered too eagerly to them. Consider the Alice-in-Wonder-land logic of the deputy fire chief who insisted that, although Our Lady was not "actually safe," it was "legally safe" because under the law as it then stood it did not have to comply with the city's municipal code that required the fire safety standards that would have saved the lives of most, if not all, the victims—no doubt a consolation to parents whose children were actually dead.
As it was, the parents had to be content with the thought that their children's deaths helped save others by shaming city officials into requiring automatic sprinkler systems in all wood-frame schools—public and private—two or more stories high, plus improvements in alarm systems. The General Assembly enacted a similar package of safety improvements in the form of the Life Safety Code of 1960.
One would think that fires of this awfulness would be prods to more general reforms, but they were not. The Iroquois Theatre fire prompted Chicago to improve fire safety in theaters, yes, but not to look at schools; the Our Lady fire forced them to act on school safety, but not to look at the safety of local office buildings or hotels or night clubs—though they too are buildings in which large numbers of people congregate.
Thus the question since 1903 has been not, "Can a disastrous fire happen again in Chicago?" but "When will a disastrous fire happen again?" The city has come close more than once. In 1993, 20 people died in a fire at the Paxton Hotel that could easily have killed several times that many; people trying to escape that North Side SRO were trapped by burglar bars on the ground floor windows. In 2003, 21 people died in a stampede at the E2 nightspot on the city's South Side. The same factors that caused so many to die at the Iroquois Theatre killed again at the E2—blocked or locked or unmarked exit doors, overcrowding, untrained staff. Had it been a fire rather than pepper spray that triggered the panic that night, Chicago would have had to endure scenes such as were seen from Rhode Island a few days later when nearly 100 died in a nightclub fire there.
A potentially more dangerous fire broke out eight months after the E2 incident, this time in an upper floor of the 35-story Cook County Administration Building (the former Brunswick Building) in the Loop. There, a little more than a block from the site of the Iroquois Theatre, six people died of asphyxiation when they were trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell by self-locking doors; the toll might have been grimmer were it not for the fact that, by the time the fire broke out, most workers had already left the building.
Official inquiries into these incidents revealed an essential truth about fire safety plans that was first made plain by the Iroquois fire: When a fire starts in a crowded building, nothing happens according to plan. For example, a disaster plan had been drafted for the Cook County Administration Building, but no one seemed to know about it. No one was quite sure whether security guards or tenants were responsible for unlocking locked stairwell doors when fire broke out, or who ought to issue orders to evacuate. Feeble oversight by the city, which had contributed to the 1903 fire, was again a factor; a retired Chicago Fire Department official explained that because of a loophole in the city's code, the building's smoke towers—shafts designed to vent smoke outside—had not been inspected for decades.
Time passes. People forget. The publisher of Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903 states that the fire had the impact in its day that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center did in ours. In terms of exciting public horror, that may well be true. If so, we must anticipate that a century from now the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center will loom in the public mind no larger than the Iroquois Theatre fire does today, meaning it will be forgotten by all save a few disaster buffs. "The lessons of what happened in Chicago a century ago must not be forgotten—or ignored," writes Anthony Hatch, who wrote that book. But of course they were, a long time ago. ●
Read all about it
The story is told in Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903 by Anthony P. Hatch (Academy Chicago Publishers) and in Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 by Nat Brandt (Southern Illinois University Press), which includes a useful introduction by historians Perry Duis and Cathryn Schallhorn.
Hatch and Brandt are both veteran journalists. Brandt's is a good book that delves into the "why" of the event—no more lurid than it has to be, if much less angry that it ought to be. Hatch focused on the human side, enlivening the copious press and official accounts with the recollections of five elderly men who had been directly involved in the Iroquois horror: a cub reporter, a fireman, a wire service reporter, a college student who helped carry out the victims, and a child who lived to tell about it after being passed, hand over hand, above the heads of fleeing adults, all of which adds to the immediacy and poignancy of the account, if not to the factual record.
The events of 1958 may be relived through To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire by journalists David Cowan and John Kuenster, published in 1996 by Ivan R. Dee Inc. Based largely on recollections of survivors and their families, it is a moving story of faith that often was not rewarded, and of anger that still festers.
These books are popular histories, and none explicitly examines the ultimate causes of these disasters. Alert readers will be able to draw their own conclusions on the evidence amply presented here about who Chicago's public agencies really work for. ●
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