Chicago has a long history of fire. While the Chicago Fire is well known, there were several other fires that made national headlines, and none was deadlier than the Iroquois Theater fire of 1903. And this one changed your life.
In an all too familiar story, something the “newest and best” was promoted as being impervious to the ravages of the natural world. And according to one inspector, the Iroquois Theater was “Absolutely Fireproof.” With a sprinkler system and dozens of doors for a quick exit, as well as an asbestos curtain designed to smother any flames that might occur on stage, it was billed as the safest theater in town.
On a cold December day, the theater was filled to standing capacity with women and children watching the vaudeville comedy Mr. Bluebeard with the famous Eddie Foy. The ornate stage was lit with calcium lights, also known as lime lights, which gave off intense light, and intense heat. This heat had caused many fires before, and when a spotlight operator noticed flames during a performance of “Swear to Me by the Pale Moonlight,” he wasn’t too concerned. But when the stagehands were unable to put it out quickly, and the flames rose to the roof, everyone knew something was wrong.
Theater fires were tragically common at the time, which was why the Iroquois was advertised as fireproof. The audience could see the flames and smoke, and thinking of all the previous disasters, they rushed towards the exits, increasing the chances that they would become victims in their own tragedy.
Eddie Foy, seeing what was happening, got on stage with the fire burning behind him and urged people to stay in their seats. The asbestos curtain was being lowered to separate the fire from the audience, and there was more danger from trampling then from fire at that point.
The curtain came down, and got stuck on a ladder. Someone backstage opened the giant loading doors, and a gust of fresh air fed the fire. Flames came through the opening in the curtain and into the theater. Absolute panic ensued, and Eddie Foy was helpless to stop it.
What happens next is a gruesome story, and one that’s often told. If you’d like to learn it, you can find it for yourself. Know that 602 people, mostly women and children died that day, from a combination of trampling, smoke inhalation, burning and falling.
After the fire, several things were learned. Most of the doors that were installed to prevent this type of thing were locked to prevent people from sneaking in. Ushers were supposed to unlock the doors in case of fire, but they were the first to run out, their duty unfulfilled. Even if they had unlocked the doors, the hinges opened inward, meaning that a crush of people would have prevented them from opening at all.
The sprinkler system was not fully installed, and did nothing to stop the flames. Much of the fireproof material was actually dry wood, and even the asbestos curtain later proved to be made of paper. It looked like asbestos, but would have been useless in holding back the fire.
In short, the Iroquois Theater was a death trap from the day it opened its doors. Short cuts were taken to get ticket sales coming in as soon as possible, always with the promise that these deficiencies would be rectified later. Though many people including the theater owners, inspectors and even the mayor were investigated, there were no criminal charges filed against any of them.
So, an awful story. How does this affect you?
Go into any fairly modern public building, turn around, and look at the doors. You won’t see a doorknob, but instead, a bar that’s pushed to open the door. That bar is called a “panic bar,” and it was created by Carl Prinzler, who was supposed to be at the Iroquois Theater that very night. Horrified by what had happened, he dedicated the next five years of his life to creating a device that would prevent panicked mobs from being caught behind a door. He worked with engineer Henry H. DuPont and sold the device through the Vonnegut Hardware Company (yes, that Vonnegut.) When the three created a firm just for selling these devices, they combined their names into Von Duprin, and that company is still in business today, improving on the original design.
Chances are you use this product a few times a week if not everyday, and while to you it’s just a way to open the door, it’s saved countless lives, maybe even yours.