Deadly Lessons Learned

Practically a perfect storm of a fire, the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago resulted in over 600 deaths, barely a month after it first opened in 1903. By comparison, the Great Chicago Fire that occurred 30 years prior, destroyed over 3 square miles of Chicago and left 100,000 homeless was responsible for half as many deaths.

Important lessons learned from Iroquois Theater fireAt the time of the theater fire, in 1903, the risks of fire were well understood. Deadly blazes during the 1800’s and the creation of taller and larger buildings had prompted invention of safety measures like fire escapes and fire sprinklers. The Iroquois Theatre was billed as “Absolutely Fireproof”, indicating that fire danger was a concern and fire safety could be used as a selling point.

Theaters, filled with flammable scenery and props, were understood to have unique risks and were usually built with a safety curtain the could be lowered between the stage and the audience to contain a fire to the stage. In addition, special doors would be added to allow smoke and heat to escape through the roof above the stage. This combination turns the state into a chimney, prompting a draft upwards and out which sucks fresh air in through the open exit doors and protecting the inhabitants.

However, the theater’s smoke doors were fastened shut, causing the smoke to flow sideways and out through the very exits people were trying to use. In addition, the fire curtain hadn’t been tested and got stuck when personal attempted to lower it. After the fire, chemical tests on the curtain showed that its mixture of wood pulp and asbestos wouldn’t have even been fire proof.

The list of issues is long. Exit doors opened inward and were held shut by the crush of people trying to escape. There were no exit signs and the exits were concealed (sometimes by flammable curtains) or locked. The building contained no emergency lighting and the full house lights weren’t turned up during the fire, leaving the venue dim. There were doors which were purely ornamental; 200 people died in a passageway that wasn’t an exit. Even some of those that managed to find an exit from the multi-story building still succumbed when they encountered incomplete fire escape ladders and stairwells, leading to at least another 125 deaths.

Despite a local fire department captain touring the theater a few days before it opened and noting there were no fire sprinklers, no alarms, no telephones nor water connections, the theater opened as it was. The fire warden for the Iroquois told the captain nothing could be done as the theater’s owners would just replace him as warden if these deficiencies were brought up.

In the century since the Iroquois Theatre fire, so much has been learned about life-safety systems like fire alarms and sprinklers. Contact Best Defense today and let us show you how we can radically increase the likelihood of escaping a fire and decrease your property damage.


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