Iroquois Theatre Disaster

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Lessons Learned From the 1903 Iroquois Disaster
Rebekah Beach
March 02, 2010

The Iroquois Theatre
Highly advertised as being “absolutely fireproof”, The Iroquois Theatre was as fireproof as the Titanic was unsinkable. On December 30th, of the year 1903, five weeks after The Iroquois opened, The Iroquois Theatre did indeed burn. The fire was so bad that in just under 8 minutes it roared through the theatre claiming 602 lives and injuring at least 250 others (Foy, 1995). According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), this fire is by far the deadliest theatre fire in American history and is the fifth deadliest of all American fires. The Iroquois fire took more lives than even the Great Chicago fire of 1871. What makes this fire even more devastating, if that is even possible, is that it was mostly women and children that were in the theatre when it was destroyed (Brandt, 2003). What happened that made this theatre burn and how come so many lives were lost in such a short span of time? What could have been done to prevent this devastation and what can we learn from this to prevent future tragedies? What Happened

The Iroquois Theatre was finished only 5 weeks before the blaze. The opening had been delayed due to labor turmoil (Brandt, 2003) and despite the construction not being complete the developers Harry J. Powers and William J. Davis wanted to open. The two wanted to take advantage of the holiday crowds and ignored obvious safety hazards and code compliance issues. A few days before the theatre was set to open, a Chicago Fire Department Captain came in and toured the facility. He noted that there were no extinguishers, sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections. In fact the only equipment the theatre had to combat fire was canisters of ‘Kilfyre’ which was traditionally used for chimneys in residential homes (Hatch, 2003). The building was definitely not up to the codes and requirements that the city of Chicago had put into place 5 years earlier in 1898 due to the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 (Brandt, 2003). The captain met with the theatre’s fire warden but the fire warden claimed that if he were to bring it up to the property owners he would simply be fired and a new warden would be brought in. The Chicago captain then met with his commanding officer and was told that it was not their duty but the fire warden’s duty take heed of the warnings and fix the issues and violations. With all of the warnings, violations, and obvious hazards the theatre opened as scheduled on November 23rd, 1903 (Hatch, 2003). It was discovered later that fire inspectors had actually been bribed with free tickets to allow the theatre to open (Brandt, 2003). Five weeks after opening, the play Mr. Blue Beard was showing at the theatre. On Wednesday December 30th, the day of the fire, the theatre set up a bargain matinee early in the afternoon. Due to the theatre’s location and because most of the schools were on vacation for their holiday breaks, the customers that bought tickets were mostly women and children. The building itself had only 1,724 seats and on this icy cold December day all of the seats were sold out. On top of the 1,724 seat tickets sold there was an additional 200 more tickets sold as standing room only (Hatch, 2003). The building was so congested that people were sitting in the aisles and blocking exits. Around 3:15, as approximately 2,000 women and children watched the second act, a light shorted out causing a small flame to begin burning a muslin drop curtain (Sauberman, 2009). When the fire begin, the orchestra and dancers continued their show while backstage hands attempted to douse the fire with the ‘Kilfyre’ but the fire was beyond their reach and growing rapidly. It quickly reached the scenery paintings, which were highly combustible, and grew very quickly (Hatch, 2003). At this point, Murphy’s Law of "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong" (Bloch, 1978) came into play...
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