, Part 2: Historic Fires that Shaped Building Codes, Fire Codes, and Standards – Iroquois Theater, Chicago, IL – (602 deaths) December 30, 1903, Harrington Group IncThe Iroquois Theater in Chicago was dubbed “absolutely fireproof” by the owners of the theater since it was a concrete structure, but it would become the tragic site of a deadly fire, just 37 days after it opened for business, during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season of 1903.

The theater had 1,724 seats, but general admission tickets were also sold for the “standing room” behind the seats, so an estimated 2,000+ patrons filled the theater to see Mr. Blue Beard, in a matinee performance, on December 30, 1903.

Chicago regulations at the time, required that a fireman, approved by the fire marshal, be present during theater performances. The Iroquois Theater hired John Sallers as the House Fireman and he inspected the building, expressing concerns about the inadequacy of protection (consisting of six tubes of Kilfyre powder), the lack of water plumbed to the standpipes, nonfunctioning roof vents, the unfinished fire escapes, and the lack of fire hooks or a fire alarm box.

Typical duties of the House Fireman were to make periodic rounds throughout the theater before and during the event to confirm:

  • All fire protection equipment was properly located, unobstructed, and in working condition
  • All exit doors were unlocked and unobstructed
  • All aisles, corridors, fire escapes, and other means of egress were kept clear and unobstructed
  • Notification of the Fire Department and initiation of an orderly evacuation in the event of a fire

It was Saller’s job to do these things, but there was no system in place for him to force Iroquois Theater management to purchase and install the equipment. Having been fired from his previous job as the House Fireman at McVicker’s Theater for being over-zealous, Sallers was cautious about what he communicated to the Iroquois Theater management.

Instead, he took his concerns to Captain Jennings at the fire station closest to the theater on Dearborn Street. Captain Jennings toured the theater and agreed with Sallers’ concerns, then reported the situation to the Battalion Chief John Hannan. The Battalion Chief visited the theater and corroborated the opinions of Sallers and Jennings, but nothing was done to stop the theater from opening as planned for the holiday season.

Many issues contributed to the significant loss of life in the fire. The owners were rushing to get the new theater open for the busy holiday season, but the building was not really “ready for business” when it opened for its first show on November 23, 1903. The fire escapes were unfinished, smoke vents above the stage were unfinished and were fastened shut, no water was plumbed to the standpipes, the outdoor fire alarm box had not been added yet, and attendants had not yet drilled for emergencies, including fire.

There were accordion style gates at the top of landings to the balcony and gallery levels that kept ticket holders in the upper levels from being able to sneak down to the more expensive seats on the main floor level. The theater manager would close the accordion gates and secure them with padlocks so no one could leave the balcony or gallery until intermission, when he would unlock and open the gates so the audience members could access the downstairs restrooms. After the second act began, the manager would again secure the gates with the padlocks until the end of the show.

During intermission, many of those standing for the show were tired and sat down on the steps or in the aisles to rest their feet. Seat holders had to squeeze past them to get in and out of the seat rows during intermission. Many remained there to watch the second act instead of standing behind the seats after intermission.

In the second act, during the song-and-dance number titled “In the Pale Moonlight”, a calcium arc floodlight sparked and ignited a fire in the overhead curtain scenery above the stage.

Attempts to extinguish the fire with two Kilfyre dry powder tin tube fire extinguishers were unsuccessful and the house fireman called for the asbestos curtain to be lowered to protect the audience from smoke and flames from the fire on the stage.

Unfortunately, the fire curtain snagged at one end on a galvanized iron bar that held a row of incandescent lights and the curtain became lopsided as the other end got stuck two-thirds of the way down, about 8-10 ft above the stage floor. The curtain provided limited protection for the audience due to the malfunction and the delay in lowering it during the fire.

The backstage freight doors were left opened for escape, however the open doors fed a steady stream of air to the fire, creating a jet of flames that impinged on the balcony and gallery. Two automatic smoke vents above the stage were unfinished and were fastened shut, so the fireball traveled toward the vents behind the gallery, incinerating everything in its path, making conditions untenable in the upper balcony and gallery sections of the theater.

People began to panic and run toward the exits. The exits were not marked and the exit doors to the north were hidden by a curtain. When the exit doors were finally located, people were further hindered by unfamiliar door latching devices that required the operation of a small lever. These door latches were commonly used in European theaters, but were unfamiliar to Americans.

The doors from the auditorium opened inward against the flow of egress traffic and the panicked crowd made it difficult to get the doors open, as they pushed forward trying to reach the exits.

Obstructed exits and dead-end corridors fueled further panic, with people pushing and rushing to the exits.

For those trying to exit from the upper gallery or balcony, the locked gates completely barred the exit stairways in the foyer, leading down from the upper levels. Approximately 70% of the deaths occurred in the gallery and the remainder in the balcony.

Many people were overcome by heat from the fire in the theater, some people succumbed to smoke inhalation, while others were trampled by the panic-stricken crowd.

The Iroquois Theater, a palace-like structure with plate glass, mahogany, and marble, became a death trap that caused the death of 602 people (many of them women and children) in under eight minutes, even though the fire was brought under control in about 15 minutes by firefighters.

This horrific fire taught us many lessons that would spark new requirements for exit pathways, exit doors, exit signs, and markings, occupancy limits, and panic hardware for exit doors.

Source Material:

  • A Tragedy Remembered, NFPA Journal, July/August 1995, pp. 75-79. Foy, E. Brandt, N. 2006. *
  • Chicago Death Trap: the Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903. Southern Illinois University Press Carbondale.
  • Iroquois Theater Fire Memorial Site

In Part 3, we’ll look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.