Iroquois Theatre Fire – December 30, 1903

The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred on December 30, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois. It is the deadliest theater fire in United States history. Over 600 people died as a result of the fire, and it is believed that not all the deaths were reported.

The Iroquois Theater had just opened on November 23, 1903, and was touted as being absolutely “FIREPROOF!” An asbestos fire curtain was installed to isolate the stage from the audience. Despite the warnings of fire officials and engineers, the show went on. The roof over the stage was nailed shut, many of the fire exits reportedly did not have working stairs to the ground, there were no exit signs, exit routes from the balconies were complicated, and there were no exit route signs installed. The asbestos fire curtain at the stage was reported to be of flimsy material which burned to a crisp in the fire. There were no fire drills conducted by the theater for ushers and employees. When the fire broke out, they did not have adequate training and knowledge of what they should do in a fire!

The capacity of the theater was 1,724, but the crowd that night is expected to have far exceeded the rated capacity. On December 30, 1903, during the second act, a light sputtered and a piece of machinery caught fire. The electrician could not pot the fire out, but the performers continued with the show. Back doors were opened, which created an influx of oxygen to feed the fire.

In a all too familiar scene, people were trampled to death in the onslaught of panicking patrons trying to exit the building. Stairs had been blocked and locked with gates, preventing patrons to exit. Several exit doors had been locked to prevent outsiders from slipping in without playing.

After the fire, Carl Prinzler, a salesman for Vonnegut Hardware Company, Indianapolis realized that he was to have been at the performance that day, and a stroke of fate prevented him from going. He became obsessed with the tragedy, and eventually developed a new device in collaboration with Henry DuPont, an engineer: The Crash Bar. The patent was awarded in 1908. Today, variations of the Crash Bar are required on all exit doors of public buildings.

New codes were implemented across the nation for theaters and exiting in all public buildings. Unfortunately, new codes take time to implement. Unfortunately, building owners and managers refuse to learn from the lessons of the past in an effort to meet a personal goal or agenda. These type tragedies would continue. A few years later, some of these same lessons were repeated at another high-profile fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25 1911.

Watch for the upcoming edition of ASSE Fireline for an in-depth article titled “Carl Prinzler’s Invention and The Iroquois Theater Fire” by Trevor Simon.

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