The Iroquois Theater Disaster

When the new Iroquois Theater in Chicago opened in November of 1903, it was advertised as "absolutely fireproof." On December 30th, between 1700 and 2,000 people, mostly mothers and children on holiday break, attended a performance of the comedy Mr. Blubeard, starring Eddie Foy. There were only 1600 seats, but tickets were sold for others to stand during the play.

As the show began its second act at 3:15 that afternoon, a spark from a stage light ignited nearby drapery. Attempts to stamp out the fire with a primitive retardant did nothing to halt its spread across the flammable decorative backdrops. Foy, dressed in drag for his next scene, attempted to calm the increasingly agitated audience. He ordered the orchestra to continue playing as stagehands made futile attempts to lower a supposedly flame-retardant curtain, but it snagged.

It was soon apparent that the fire could not be contained. Audience members bolted from their seats toward what few exit doors they could find, but most were obscured by curtains. They were further stymied by metal accordion gates, firmly locked to keep those in upper levels from sneaking down to pricier seats during intermissions. The terrified patrons – an estimated 1,700 with many more standing ticket holders clogging the aisles - were funneling through scant few chokepoints. Quickly the scene had changed “from mimicry to tragedy,” as one survivor said. Watching from the stage, Foy wrote in his memoirs, he saw in the upper levels a “mad, animal-like stampede – their screams, groans and snarls, the scuffle of thousands of feet and bodies grinding against bodies merging into a crescendo half-wail, half-roar.”

More than 600 people died in the stampede and conflagration. An investigation showed that required safety features were either nonexistent or non-functioning, and the overall design of the building impeded escape. The scandal of the Iroquois Theater fire led to the development of independently-powered exit signs and doors that open from the inside only. Read about the disaster and its aftermath at Smithsonian.    

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