What you do is important.
I was again reminded of the critical nature of fire protection planning, prevention, and response when reading Nat Brandt's 2003 book "Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903." It was and still is the largest loss of life in U.S. History due solely to a fire.
Touted proudly as "Absolutely Fireproof," the Iroquois Theatre opened as destination of grand opulence and ornate design. On December 30th, just over a month after opening, a calcium arclight on stage shorted, causing roughly 6-inches of wire to overheat and ignite. A nearby drop curtain quickly caught fire, spreading the flames up through the vast amounts of scenery material above the stage.
Attempts to extinguish the fire using chemical canisters were ineffective, and an asbestos fire curtain failed to lower into place due to lighting supports that obstructed the curtain's path. In an attempt to thwart the electrical nature of the early fire, stage lights were shut off, but broken fuses then left the auditorium and lobby without any light. Covered, confusing, unmarked exits and some with locked doors made egress in the auditorium and through the lobby impossible for many, resulting in a rushed panic, trampling, and further blocking of exits.
Within five minutes of ignition nearly the entire set above the stage was inflamed. A large iron door to the rear of the stage was opened by stagehands escaping the fire, only giving fresh air to the fire. Skylights above the stage, which had intended to open as smoke and heat vents, were inoperable due to clamps not removed after installation. Exhaust above the rear of the auditorium pulled smoke up and into the auditorium.
Within a half hour the fire was completely extinguished, with a death toll due to trampling and smoke inhalation that still is unfathomable.
Contributors to Loss of Life
Early attribution to the 602 deaths from the fire was incorrectly blamed upon panic, in part a chauvinist attitude that the crowd full of women and children acted inappropriately. Later study and report identified numerous major contributors to the major loss of life as
It was mentioned that given our modern understanding for fire hazard and egress, it was surprising that most of the 1700 people in attendance that day were even able to escape.
Following the fire, tougher inspections began throughout the country and in theaters worldwide. All theatres in Chicago were closed until inspected for safety could be completed.
After years of legal disputes, ultimately no one was found legally responsible for the tragedy. Reform brought clearer language to ordinances with better-enforcing authority, but even those were slow to change. Major changes as a result of the fire included:
Thoughts on The Book by Nat Brandt
This powerful volume was well comprised and focus almost entirely on the fire and its aftermath with long-standing implications. I would recommend it for those who want to understand the awful implications of very poorly planned construction paired with lack of enforcement.
As a father, this was a very difficult read. There were stories of efforts to escape the fire by so many (successful and unsuccessful), but particularly awful was the large numbers of women and children who couldn't escape. I cannot imagine the incredible toll this event had for victim's families. It is truly sad that such a long list of fallacies were overlooked to create such a horrendous tragedy.
Do we have the problem solved today? Do all areas of the world have resources to prevent these kinds of tragedies? I wish the answer was yes. What I can say is that I feel fortunate to live in a time and location where there is more recognition and enforcement for life safety, and to be in a position to help contribute towards a safer built environment.
Protecting life is important. What you contribute as part of the fire protection industry is important.
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Joseph Meyer, PE, is a Fire Protection Engineer in St. Louis, Missouri. See bio on About page.