Today is the 107th anniversary of a tragedy at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago, which shaped the early codes and led to the invention of the panic device.  More than 600 people lost their lives in this fire, making it the deadliest theater fire and the deadliest single-building fire in United States history.

Article from the Chicago Tribune
“That touched off a stampede for the 27 exits, some of which were hidden by drapes; others were locked to foil gate-crashers.”

Anonymous contemporary account of the tragedy
“Darkness descending upon the scene, doors locked against the frightened multitude, fire escapes cut off by tongues of flame and exits and stairways choked with the bodies of those who died fighting to reach safety hampered many-at least the six hundred carried out later…”

The birth of Von Duprin
“On December 30, 1903, Five Hundred and Ninety-six (596) lives were lost in the Iroquois Theatre Fire, Chicago, Illinois.  That alone was enough to startle the nation, let alone the hardware men who stood by idly with no solution, nothing to prevent the recurrence of so terrible a catastrophe.”

‘Absolutely Fireproof’: Iroquois Theatre blaze kills more than 600 – Enid News
Iroquois Theatre Photo“Many theatergoers were attempting to flee and some found the fire exits behind draperies, but were unable to operate the bacule, or counterbalanced locks.  Three doors to the theater were opened but the majority could not be opened. Patrons began trampling one another in an attempt to escape the flames.”

“Large iron gates blocked off the stairways during performances to prevent patrons from moving down from the gallery to the dress circle or orchestra. Many of the exit routes were confusing; patrons seated in the front of the gallery had to turn left, climb four stairs, turn right, climb down a number of stairs, then turn and descend another staircase simply in order to reach the dress circle level, then descend another stairway to reach the foyer. The gallery stairways also converged on one point, making it more likely that the exits would become bottlenecks.Within the theatre, curtains covered the main fire exits located on the north side of each level.The exits themselves were secured with bascule locks, a form of lock in which bolts run vertically out of the top and bottom of the door and which were almost unheard of outside of Europe at the time.The fire escapes that led from the north exits each served three doors and were too narrow to carry the number that could exit if all doors opened. Moreover, the last rungs of the emergency stairs were frozen in place and could not be moved. Many doors opened inwards, including the main stage door.The roof ventilation system was either nailed downor wired down,but in any event was not functional.”

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