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Chicago, IL Iroquois Theater Fire Panic Disaster, Dec 1903

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Greatest Fire Disaster In Country's History Occurred During Holiday Matinee in New Playhouse Declared to Be Fireproof.

Revised figures of the dead in the Chicago fire panic caused by the burning of the Iroquois Theater, Wednesday afternoon, place the number at 590. A large number are still missing, and scores who were seriously injured are still in the city hospitals. The number of those of whom there is any record is 103.
The fire broke out in the scenery of the wings of the theater during the second act of the afternoon performance of "Mr. Bluebeard." In a moment the great audience was in a wild panic, and in the mad struggle to get to the doors men, women and children were struck down, trampled on or fatally crushed.
Death came to half the audience attending the holiday performance inside of ten minutes. A few sparks fell from a broken electric wire in the tiles. A moment later a line of flame touched off the flimsy stage setting. The chorus fled the stage, and EDDIE FOY, the comedian, stepped to the front and asked the auditors to keep their seats. He ordered the stage hands to lower the drop curtain. It fell halfway and then stopped short. Nothing could move it, and in a few moments flames reached out through the opening into the body of the building. Fifty persons met death before they could rise. The rest dashed for the exits.
Some fell before they had gone two feet. More were stretched lifeless by the flames while they were climbing over the backs of chairs. Every aisle became a lane of death. The exits were jammed with crying women and children. Faces were ground to pulp, clothes were torn off, and many in blind insanity rushed straight into the spurting fire and were shriveled into ashes.
Before any real effort at rescue could be made only the fire crackled in the building. When firemen fought their way inside they came across piles of bodies rising here and there to a height of ten feet. All over the main floor and the balcony women and children lay dead on the floor and hung lifeless over the backs of chairs. The stairways leading to the balcony were choked by the dead. At the top of the stairs 150 bodies were piled in a smoking mass. Down near the stage a whole row of seats was filled by women with scorched hats and their heads bent over on their breasts.
Nearly every chair in the balcony held a woman in the same position. The flames had killed them before they could move, and one by one the firemen carried out the bodies and laid them in rows on the sidewalk. The audience was composed almost entirely of women and children.
Lying on a cot in the Michael Reese hospital badly burned about the upper portion of his body, JAMES H. STRONG told of his experience in attempting to force open one of the exits leading from the first balcony. MR. STRONG went to the theater in company with his wife, his mother and his niece, MISS TINA STRONG. When the panic commenced MR. STRONG led the two ladies and the girl off toward an exit in the center of the balcony, toward which he saw but few people were hastening. On arriving at the door he found it locked.
"I jumped up," he said, "caught the edge of the transom in my fingers, drew myself up and smashed the window in the transom. I had found it impossible to open the door and thought that possibly I might do it from the outside if I couldn't from the balcony. I dropped to the floor on the far side and to my horror found that the door was not only tight shut, but was actually locked with a padlock and hasp. I did all in my power to loosen the hasp, but it was too strong for me."
"Just then a carpenter with some tools in his hand came running up, and I told him to help me open the door and we would be able to save a large number of the people on the inside. We worked and pulled and tugged at the padlock like crazy men, but we could make no impression upon it. The carpenter had a hatchet, and with this and our combined weight we tried to break the door down. This was also out of the question, and I then told the other man to give me a boost so that I could reach the transom and possibly I could pass the people out to him."
"He helped me up, and I got the upper portion of my body through the transom and looked for my people. They were just beneath me, but just at that second the flames swept through the balcony, and I don't believe that any of those who were in there then escaped. I inhaled the flame, and in trying to hang on and at the same time avoid the fire I lost my grip and fell back into the hallway outside. The carpenter picked me up, and I urged him to help me back, and that is about all I can remember except that he dragged me off."
MRS. STRONG, the wife of MR. STRONG, is among the identified dead. His mother and niece are among the missing. He himself is in a critical condition and may not survive.
Thursday evening the coroner's jury, which had spent the day in visiting the various morgues, was taken by Coroner TRAEGER to the theater.
The members of the jury while engaged in inspecting the stage frequently remarked that the protection against fire seemed to them to have been inadequate. The jury then climbed the stairway leading to the first balcony. Here the plush covering of the seats was found to be burned on every seat from wall to wall and from the front row of the balcony to the last. An inspection was made of the extra leading to the fire escapes at the north end of the building.


article | by Dr. Radut