St Johns School FireYesterday was the 98th anniversary of a tragic school fire that took the lives of 22 children between the ages of 7 and 17, who were burned or crushed to death while trying to escape.  The 3-story brick and wood building was engulfed within 5 minutes, and it’s miraculous that more of the almost 700 children and staff in the building were not killed.  The fire began in the basement, and traveled through the building as the basement doors were left open.  The oil finish used on the wood floors contributed to the toxicity of the smoke.  The stairs were not enclosed, and did not discharge to the exterior.  Almost all of the victims were found just inside the main entrance.  As a result of this fire, Peabody became the first city to pass a law which required egress doors in public buildings and schools to swing in the direction of egress.

From the Commonwealth of Massachusetts official report on this fire, the following precautions were suggested for all existing school builldings:

1) There should be installed in the basement of every school building of more than 1 story, an automatic wet or dry sprinkling system.

2) Nothing but metal receptacles should be used for rubbish, which should be disposed of daily when there is much of it.

3) All closets should be of metal, and no closet nor any rubbish should be allowed under a stairway.

4) All stairways should be enclosed on each floor with non-combustible material or wood covered with metal, with self-closing standard fire doors, which should not be fastened back during school sessions.

5) All wood partitions in basements should be covered with metal sheeting.

6) All wood partitions in corridors should be covered with metal sheeting, and doors on the line of march to the exits should be metal or wood covered with metal.

7) Heaters in basements should be enclosed in fireproof partitions, with metal or self-closing standard fire doors opening into the corridor or basement and to the outside air.

8) Gongs with arrangements for signals announcing the locality of a fire should be installed on every floor.

9) There should be a connection with the public fire alarm station.

10) An automatic fire alarm should be installed in the basement of each school building.

11) The janitor or fireman [note: this was the man who tended the fire for heat] should be present in the building during the school session and visit once in every 30 minutes the parts of the building where a fire might be expected.

12) Oils of any kind should be forbidden for use on wood floors.

13) Stairs should terminate, if practicable, at or near the outside exits.

14) The school should have fire drills as part of a system to leave the building in the case of fire, in the quickest, most orderly, and safest way.  If there are not enough teachers for the purpose, some of the older children should be designated to look after the smaller ones and see that they stay in line; others to see that the ways to the exits are clear; others, after the gong for drill sounds, to quickly reach the exits and see that the doors protecting them are wide open, and if the fire is in the basement and the doors are open thereto, to close them.

15) Individual assignments should be made to assist the person directing the drills to locate the fire and ascertain its extent and advance, so that information may quickly be secured to intelligently direct the children how and where to make their exit from the building.

16) In a drill should be included an imaginary fire in some part of the building, so as to learn the best thing to do if a real fire should occur.  This should continue from time to time until all parts of a building where a fire might be expected to start have been covered.

We’ve come a long way, but we must remain vigilant.

More information on this fire:

NFPA – Famous School Disasters

GenDisasters – Events that touched our ancestors’ lives

Pilot Catholic News – Memorial dedicated to young victims of 1915 fire

New York Times – 21 children die in school fire

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