Case Study: Iroquois Theater Fire, Chicago IL

When we are trying to figure out the best ways to prevent a fire, one strategy to use is to flip sides and look at the causes of fires. In doing this, we are able to understand the root of what happened and take steps in avoiding those very same actions. As we scrutinize certain tragic fires in U.S. history, we can ascertain the best steps for fire prevention. We've gotten wiser over the years, and many regulations are now in place that can help prevent or minimize damage due to fires. A significant fire that we can learn from is one that occurred in 1903 in Chicago, IL. This fire took place at the Iroquois Theater. This fire is considered one of the most devastating fires in American history, and if we are wise, we can learn from this tragedy.

The fire in Chicago at the Iroquois Theater is one of the deadliest fires in our nation's history.  During the showing of a play one evening, part of a curtain made of muslin caught fire because of a nearby lamp that shorted out. As a result, the flames swiftly moved up to the fly gallery. It was in this location that thousands of square feet of additional scenery that was also flammable were hung. Chaos took over in the theater as flame emerged from the half-lowered curtains.

The attendees of the play were overcome with fear and panic.  As they tried to quickly vacate the building, other patrons were trampled to death during the frenzy.  Even more individuals were trapped in the buildings in dead-end areas. Many tried to leave through windows that were only decorated to look like doors and were not actually functional. And as even more tried to flee, they discovered that bars at the stairways blocked their paths.  With no way to escape, hundreds of people were trapped inside the theater as it was going up in flames.

The saddest part of this disaster is what took place at the bottom of these blocked stairways.  Many individuals were trampled, crushed or suffocated to death.  In total, there were 605 people who were killed in that horrifying fire.

As the fire was investigated, it was discovered that a shorted lamp is what lit the curtains ablaze.  During that time period, fireproofing materials was not practiced.  However, if this were a similar, modern situation, a fire like this could have been precluded or at least damaged minimized if flameproofing techniques were available. Having the items in the building treated with flame repellents could have been the difference between life and death. 

Current regulations from the FDNY now require all hangings, decorations, curtains and scenery to be treated with fire retardant spray.  While it's true that there were other contributing factors to this fire such as the lack of sprinkler systems, blocked exit routes due to bars, vague exit routes, unsafe exit routes due to attendees sitting in the aisles, it is undeniable that had flameproofing techniques been in effect at that time, it would have made an enormous difference.

When we study fires that have taken place in history, it is obvious just how imperative flame repellent treatments are.  When items such as scenery, drapery, curtains, and hangings have been sprayed with fire retardants, the whole building is much safer from the threat and effects of a fire. Flameproofing is often the deciding factor in whether a fire is major, minor, or if one will even occur at all. 

At Manhattan Flameproofing, we are happy to use our expertise to assist you with all of your flameproofing needs. Please call us at 1-800-268-7993 for a free, no-obligation estimate.