Iroquois Theater Fire

On December 30, 1903, hundreds of adults and school children gathered in the “fireproof” Iroquois Theater in downtown Chicago for a performance of a play starring popular Vaudevillian  Eddie Foy. The Iroquois Theater was new and beautiful in 1903, and was believed to be “absolutely fireproof”. Yet, just five weeks after opening, it burned. The architect of the theater had included 25 exits that, it was claimed, could empty the building in less than five minutes. The problem was, the doors of all these exits opened inward, effectively trapping the crush of people trying to get out of the building. volunteer firefighters in Colorado

It is believed that faulty lighting started the fire, which quickly spread to the hemp-filled cushions of the wooden seats. The Iroquois seated 1,600 people but during this matinee show filled with children on Christmas break, it is believed there was an overflow crowd of nearly 2,000 people filling the seats and aisles. Backstage were over 400 actors and crew working the show.

After the alarm was raised and firefighters responded to the scene, everything was so quiet and normal that they thought it was a false alarm. However, as they tried to enter the building, they were unable to because bodies were piled against the doors inside. Vents in the roof of the theater were not completed in time for the opening, and so they were nailed shut to keep out the weather. The horrible result was that hundreds of people were trapped in the closed space with toxic smoke, and most suffocated or were trampled trying to exit the theater. The final death toll was 602, including 212 children. volunteer firefighters in Colorado

The Iroquois Theater Fire is the nation’s fourth deadliest blaze and the deadliest single building fire in American history. An investigation revealed that the building was full of fire code violations. The city and the fire department denied all knowledge of these violations. They blamed the inspectors, who had overlooked the problems in exchange for free theater passes. A grand jury indicted a number of individuals, including the theater owners, fire officials and even the mayor, however, no one was ever charged. Families of the dead filed nearly 275 civil lawsuits against the theater but no money was ever collected because the Iroquois Theater Company filed for bankruptcy soon after the disaster.

The lesson learned is that following fire codes saves lives. Doors that opened outward instead of inward (?!?) would have saved countless people. In addition, sprinkler systems, working vents, lighted exits and fewer people in the building may have made this tragedy far less reaching. Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. issued an order that banned public celebration on New Year’s Eve. Every church and factory bell in the city was silenced and on January 2, 1904, the city observed an official day of mourning.


And… if you haven’t gotten your 2012 Firefighter Calendar yet, it’s not too late! You can purchase them at The Big Chili. 100% of the proceeds from every calendar sold through the end of the year goes to our local fire departments.


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