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The Iroquois Theater Fire
Transcript of The Iroquois Theater Fire
Architect Benjamin H. Marshall had studied a number of fires before building the theater. He wanted to make sure it was tragedy free. The Iroquois Theater had 25 exits that were supposedly able to empty the building in less than 5 minutes. The stage was fitted with a curtain that could be lowered to protect the audience in case of an emergency. Fire Inspector, Ed Laughlin checked over the theater in November and declared it "fireproof beyond all doubt."
On December 30, 1903, school was out for Christmas and the Iroquois Theater was overflowing with an audience of nearly 2000, consisting mainly of women and children. Mr. Blue Beard, starring Eddie Foy was showing that day. Around 3:20 p.m., during the second act, an arc light on the left side of the stage ignited a strip of a painted cotton drape. The fire, left unnoticed, spread up to the scenery area above the stage. When the first pieces of blazing fabric fell onto the stage, the audience thought it merely a part of the show.
Over 575 people died in the terrible fire that day, and 30 would die in the next week from injuries. It took 5 hours to carry out all of the bodies to temporary morgues. The mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, Jr. banned the celebration of New Year's Eve. January 2nd, 1904, was named the official day of mourning.
How did this tragedy happen in a building deemed "Fireproof beyond all doubt" by Fire Inspector Ed Laughlin? As it turned out, many precautions were overlooked to ensure the theater would open in time for the Christmas season. Most of the fire equipment that was advertised to have been installed was not. There were no fire alarms. The doors were designed to swing inward making it difficult to get out in case of an emergency. The seats in the theater were wooden and stuffed with hemp. The vents on the ceiling that were supposed to filter out smoke had been nailed shut to keep out rain and snow. The "fireproof" curtains were made of cotton. Sprinklers were never installed because the owners found them "unsightly" and costly. All emergency exit lights had been turned off to prevent distractions during the show. As soon as the theater caught fire, the teenage ushers fled and forgot to unlock the emergency exits, almost all of which had been locked to prevent people sneaking into the theater.
The Following Years
The fire was named the single deadliest building fire, and the fourth deadliest fire in the nation. The Iroquois Theater Company filed for bankruptcy after the disaster. The building was repaired and opened the next year as a music hall. It would close down and reopen as a new theater in 1905. The building was later torn down. Today, the Ford Center for Performing Arts has taken its place on 24 West Randolph Street, in downtown Chicago.
The Iroquois Theater
Located in downtown Chicago,The Iroquois Theater was the most beautiful showplace in all of Illinois. It was both built and opened in the year 1903. It was built with grand ceilings and exquisite decor. However, in order to get the theater opened as soon as possible, a few minor details had to be overlooked.
When one actor's costume caught fire, the audience realized that the fire was a real threat. The singers all quickly left the stage while the audience began to panic. The leading actor,Eddie Foy ran on stage to try and calm the crowd. They quieted for only a moment until a draft from an open stage door fed the flames and a fireball lit the velvet curtain on fire. Stagehands attempted to lower the protecting curtain to keep the fire on the stage, but it got stuck a few feet above the stage floor. The crowd stampeded to the main exit. The room was filled with heat and smoke. Bodies began to pile up, blocking the exits. The fire was burning almost 15 minutes before it was noticed by passersby. In fact, it was so quiet outside, that when the firefighters first arrived, they thought it was a false alarm.
By the time the firefighters got inside, not a single living person was left in the building. It only took 10 minutes to put out the fire that had caused the deaths of so many people, because it had consumed everything that could be burned by then. The few that escaped the initial rush made it to an emergency exit on the balcony, one of the few that wasn't locked. However, being a somewhat new building, the staircase had not been put up yet. Nearby painters tried to help by setting up makeshift bridges with their ladders, but not many survived. Over 150 people were said to have died that day in what is now called "Death Alley."
William Clendenin, editor of Fireproof magazine, had inspected the theater himself prior to the opening and wrote an editorial pointing out many possible dangers. The city officials and fire department denied knowledge of the fire code violations. Over 275 civil law suits were filed, but no money was ever collected. In fact, the only person to ever serve jail time was a nearby saloon owner that had robbed dead bodies while his saloon was temporarily being used as a morgue. The cause of the fire was never discovered, but was believed to be faulty wiring in a spot light.
Memorial dedicated to the victims of the tragedy in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois