Theater Fire, Chicago 1903
Fire tragedies are among the tragedies that can usually be prevented by placing certain safety measures into place. The 1903 Iroquois fire tragedy in Chicago is one of the deadliest theater fire tragedies in United States history. On the afternoon of 30 December, people mostly women and children had gathered in the Iroquois theater to watch Eddy Foy, a prominent comedian perform. The Iroquois Theater was one of the magnificent public buildings in Chicago city in 1903 that attracted many civilians. The theater was fully packed being the holiday season and it was believed that the theater was fireproof before the disaster struck. According to Sector (web), five hundred and seventy-five people died on the scene and other thirty others succumbed to injuries in the following weeks raising the number to over six hundred deaths. It is estimated that there were over two thousand people including the performers in the theater at the time of the tragedy. Fire disaster experts believe there were several factors that may have contributed much to the higher death toll.
As the show continued, a lighting operator noticed a spark coming from the calcium light bulbs at backstage. It is therefore believed that poor electrical wiring in the theater was the cause of the fire in the Iroquois theater. The fire started at around 3:20 pm backstage and most people in the auditorium did not know that the fire had started and even mistaken the burning piece of the velvet curtain as part of the drama. Eddy calmed down the crowd as they attempted to contain the fire backstage however, this did not work out due to several factors that helped fuel the fire. Most of the building materials and decorations in the theater were highly flammable and this made the fire spread easily in the theater.
Although this was a tragedy and many people could have not expected it, several factors contributed to the high number of lives lost in the inferno. According to Gunn (203), the Iroquois theater has thirty exits and twenty-seven of them were closed at the time of the show for fear of intruders during the show time. Some of the caretakers had gone for drinks whereas the others were in the auditorium watching with the crowd. The fact that most exits were closed and hidden behind the curtains in the theater made it impossible for most people to find their way out of the theater when as the fire raged. Many people could only think of the exit through the main entrance that most of them used to gain access to the auditorium. As a result, there was stumpage at the entrance making it difficult for people to exit on time, which would have lowered the number of casualties in the inferno. Besides, the other doors that were not locked opened inwards instead of outwards that making it difficult for people to exit the theater. In addition, it can be pointed out that instead of Eddy calming people and assuring them of safety, they should have encouraged the crowd to start exiting the building before it all turned into flames.
Despite the fact that Iroquois theater was highly furnished and deemed fireproof, other safety precautions were not taken thereby resulting in the deaths of several civilians. Besides the fact that the doors linking the main auditorium and the balconies were locked, the design and structure of the balcony made it difficult for people to evacuate and it was established that most of the people who died were seated in the balconies. There were not enough ladders to assist people coming down of the balconies and some jumped down sustaining serious injuries and some deaths due to the impact. In addition, the Iroquois theater did not have fire alarms and it took time for the concerned to run to the fire station to call for help. Had there been a fire alarm, the fire may have been contained in time thereby reducing the number of deaths and injuries sustained in the inferno. According to Toops (web), the theater did not meet safety standards due to corruption and haste to finish the building just before the holidays and as a result, the structural safety was compromised.
Fire safety in any public building is a factor of serious concern to both the government and the public. The occupant, maintainer, and the building owner all should be aware of the fire safety precaution as this can help reduce tragedies such as the Iroquois fire tragedy in Chicago. The structural design and the poor safety measures were the key causes of death in the 1903 Iroquois fire tragedy. The haste with which the building was finished compromised the safety standards in the building a phenomenon in Chicago that was mainly characterized by corruption even in construction companies (Campbell, 190). For instance, had the electric wiring been done according to the standard procedures, the tragedy would have been avoided. Emergency exits should always be put in strategic places that are easily accessible and should be directed by the use of labels in a scenario that was not in the Iroquois theater. Instead, curtains covered exits making it difficult for people to access. Panic among the audience also played a role in this tragedy, which resulted in the loss of many lives. Panic and scrambling for the exits delayed the exit processes because of the stumpage that resulted in the exits that were open. The stumpage further delayed the rescue process since the fire authorities found it difficult to access the building. Furthermore, emergency exits under no circumstance should be locked when people are inside any public buildings, from the Iroquois tragedy, lessons on this should be taken into consideration.
Conclusively, the Iroquois fire tragedy claimed several lives at one the incident and could have been avoided by following the safety standards put in place for the construction companies, the workers in the theater, and the public. The fact that most emergency exits were under lock was an act of negligence on the management team at the theater. Today, it can be concluded that most public buildings in the United States do have proper fire safety measures put in place ranging from training, fire-extinguishing appliances, and structural safety plans. However, fire tragedies such as the Iroquois fire tragedy can only be prevented through cooperation and observing the laid out standard safety procedures by all parties involved. The safety of any individual is key and therefore safety standards should not be compromised in any situation.
Campbell, Ballard. Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A Reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events. New York: Facts On File, 2008. Internet resource.
Gunn, Angus. Encyclopedia of Disasters: Environmental Catastrophes and Human Tragedies. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. Internet resource.
Secter, Bob. The Iroquois Theater Fire. National Politics. Chicago Tribune. 2014. Web. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/chi-chicagodays-iroquoisfire-story,0,6395565.st
Toops, Laura. The Iroquois Theater Fire: Stage Set For Disaster. Property Casualty. 2014. Web. Retrieved from http://www.propertycasualty360.com/2014/01/03/the-iroquois-theater-fire-stage-set-for-disaster