While the Great Chicago Fire was the most famous blaze in the city’s history, it was certainly not the deadliest... nor, some might say, was it the most heartbreakingly tragic. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the city’s other terrible fires.
THE IROQUOIS THEATER FIRE
A terrible blaze occurred here on December 30, 1903 as a fire broke out in the crowded theater during a performance of the vaudeville show, “Mr. Bluebeard”, starring the popular comedian Eddie Foy. The fire was believed to have been started by faulty wiring leading to a spotlight and claimed the lives of hundreds of people, including children, who were packed into the afternoon show for the holidays.
Around 3:00 p.m., during the second act, Eddie Foy
noticed a spark descend from an overhead light, the some scraps of
burning paper that fell down onto the stage. In moments, flames began
licking at the red-velvet curtain and while a collective gasp went up
from the audience, no one rushed for the exits. It has been surmised
that the audience merely thought the fire was part of the show.
Realizing what was happening, Foy told the audience to remain calm... and then himself rushed off stage and into the safety of the alley outside. As he ran, he ordered that the “fireproof” curtains be closed. The other actors in the show remained composed until they too realized what was happening. Many of them panicked and several chorus girls fainted and had to be dragged off-stage. None of the 348 members of the cast or crew were injured.
Stagehands attempted to lower the asbestos curtains, but tragically, they stuck halfway down and fanned the flames out into the auditorium. The audience began to scream and panic and a mad rush was started for the Randolph Street exit from the theater. As the crowd reached the doors, they could not open them as they had been designed to swing in rather than outward. The crush of people prevented those in the front from opening the doors. To make matters worse, some of the side doors to the auditorium were reportedly locked. Many of those who died not only burned, but suffocated from the smoke and the crush of bodies as well. Later, as the police removed the charred remains from the theater, they discovered that a number of victims had been trampled in the panic. One dead woman’s face even bore the mark of a shoe heel.
When it was all over, 572 people died in the fire and
more died later, bringing the eventual death toll up to 602. The
passageway behind the theater is still referred to as “Death Alley”
today after hundreds of bodies were placed there. For nearly five hours,
police officers, firemen and even newspaper reporters, carried out the
dead. At least 150 victims were piled along the passageway and anxious
relatives sifted through the remains, searching for loved ones. Other
bodies were taken to police wagon and ambulances and transported to a
temporary morgue at Marshall Field’s on State Street. Medical
examiners and investigators worked all through the night.
Someone, the public cried, had to answer for the fire and a number of members of the show’s cast and crew, along with the theater managers, were arrested. The investigation continued for weeks, but no one was ever charged with a criminal act.
The Iroquois fire is remembered as the most tragic fire in American theater history but regardless, the facade of the Iroquois was used when the Oriental Theater later re-opened at the site, which is now 24 West Randolph Street. The theater is part of the Civic Tower Building and next door to the restored Delaware Building. The theater remained in business for many years, finally becoming home to a wholesale electronics dealer, then closing down in 1981. Amazingly, the theater (which was believed to be lost for good) was restored and opened as the Ford Theater in 1998.
THE OUR LADY OF ANGELS FIRE
Another terrible, soul-crushing fire took place on December 1, 1958 when 92 children and three nuns died in a fire at the Our Lady of Angels School on the west side. This horrible event has been called the “fire that refuses to die” as many lives were shattered on that fateful day and the neighborhood where the school once stood has never fully recovered.
The fire occurred in a quiet Catholic parish around 3820 West Iowa Street (where the school was located) of about 4,500 families of mostly Irish and Italian backgrounds. Many of them lived modestly in apartments and brick bungalows and after the fire, many of these hardworking families abandoned the neighborhood, never to return.
The fire began at around 2:40 PM on December 1, about 20 minutes before school was let out for the day. Like many other schools at that time, Our Lady of Angels was tragically without many of the safety measures that exist today. There were no smoke detectors, no sprinkler systems, no outside fire alarm and the entire school had only one fire escape. Unbelievably though, the school had just passed a fire inspection two months before. By 1958 standards, the building was legally safe.
It is believed that the fire started in a trash can at the bottom of the basement stairwell. Here, it smoldered all day and then spread to the stairs, thanks to air from an open window. Once it was ignited, the fire quickly spread and burned up to the second floor, devouring the building as it went. By the time the first fire trucks arrived, the upper floor of the north wing was engulfed in flames. The fire had already been burning for a number of minutes before the alarm was sent and more precious time was lost when the fire department trucks pulled up the church rectory and not the school. The dispatchers had been given the wrong address by the person who phoned in the report. Then, when the first trucks arrived at the school, they had to break through a locked gate to get inside.
Inside of the classrooms, which were rapidly filling
with smoke, the students heard the sound of the fire trucks approaching
but then nothing, as the trucks went to the rectory instead. At that
desperate moment, the nuns asked the children to simply bow their heads
in prayer. When the trucks finally arrived, and the extent of the blaze
was realized, another alarms was sent out, ordering all available
vehicles to the scene. Before it was over, 43 pieces of fire equipment
were at the scene.
As more time passed, the fire escape had become unreachable through the burning hallways. The only way out was through the windows and soon, screaming children were plunging to the frozen ground below. The firemen behaved heroically, using their own bodies to break the falls of the children.
More confusion, and despair, was added to the scene as spectators began to arrive. They rushed the police lines, hysterically trying to reach their children who were trapped in the building, and hampered the efforts of the firefighters. When it was over, the bodies of the victims were taken to the Cook County Morgue, where they were identified by family members and relatives.
Word of the disaster spread around the world. In
Rome, Pope John XXIII sent a personal message to the archbishop of
Chicago, the Most Reverend Albert Gregory Meyer. Four days later, he
would conduct a mass for the victims and their families before an altar
set up at the Northwest Armory. He called the fire “a great and
Nearly as tragic as the fire itself is the fact that no blame was ever placed for the disaster. In those days, there was no thought of suing those responsible for the conditions that allowed the fire to happen. Outwardly, the families accepted the idea that the fire had been simply “God’s will” but it cannot be denied that a number of those involved left the church, their faith as shattered as their lives. No one dared to challenge the church over what happened and life moved quietly on.
However, the fire has never been forgotten. A new parish school was constructed on the site in 1960, but it was closed down in 1999 because of declining enrollments. The only memorial to the victims of the fire is located in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, where 25 of the victims were buried. It was constructed from private donations in 1960...and to this date, no official recognition or memorial to the fire has been erected.
But no matter how you look at it, the fire may have another legacy that has endured. Thanks to the horror at the Our Lady of Angels, the lives of future children may have been saved. Even though this is small comfort to the families of those who perished, the new safety regulations that went into effect because of the fire have most likely saved the lives of thousands of children over the years. Regardless, those who lost their lives in this tragedy will never be forgotten.
THE GOODYEAR DIRIGIBLE
Another terrifying event occurred on July 21, 1919 when the Goodyear dirigible ( the forerunner of the “blimp”) the WING FOOT, crashed into the Illinois Trust and Savings Building at 231 South LaSalle Street. Just minutes before the bank closed for the day, the dirigible, powered by 95,000 cubic feet of very flammable hydrogen, suddenly crashed to the earth. The WING FOOT tore into the iron supports holding the glass skylight of building in place and the two engines and gasoline tanks crashed to the floor of the bank. Glass and steel rained down onto the employees, along with a deadly shower of fuel. The rotunda was instantly consumed in flames, trapping tellers and stenographers inside. The resulting fire cut off all hope of escape and many were burned beyond recognition. The intense heat made rescue work virtually impossible for hours and 12 people died and many more were injured.
The cause of the tragedy was determined to be static electricity and a rush of air from the propellers. The Goodyear company paid for the care of the victims and the bank chipped in $1,000 for the family of anyone who died in the disaster. The bank itself re-opened for business the very next day.
The WING FOOT tragedy, and others like it involving such aircraft, showed that such transportation was not safe and this incident pointed toward the end of an era. After the crash of the HINDENBURG in New Jersey in 1937, the use of dirigibles was abandoned as a means for passenger travel. This would be the only legacy of the event as no plaque or historical marker has ever been erected about this terrible event.
THE LASALLE HOTEL FIRE
The LaSalle Hotel opened in 1909 at the northwest corner of Madison and LaSalle Streets. Almost as soon as it opened to guests, the advertising began to boast that it was the “largest, safest and most modern hotel in America, outside of New York City”. The owners also claimed that it was fireproof... which was akin to the White Star Line insisting that the TITANIC was “unsinkable”. Or so they would discover in 1946......
On June 5, 1946 a carelessly tossed cigarette ignited
a fire in the pit of the Number Five elevator shaft of the hotel. Within
minutes, the building, which was essentially a “fire trap”, was
burning out of control. The flames shot upwards through the elevator
shaft and sent fire along the ceiling from the north elevator to the
mezzanine. The flames then spread further up, to the seventh floor,
where they stopped. Deadly smoke filled the hallways though, reaching
the top floor. Many of the guests, thinking that cries of “fire”
were a prank, remained in their rooms. They ended up suffocating from
the thick smoke.
As the fire spread, escape routes were cut off and desperate guests threw SOS notes to the street below, begging for rescue that never came. In those days, fire ladders only extended to the eight floor, making rescue impossible. Many of the guests hurled luggage from their windows and into the streets below, while others took the fatal plunge themselves.
In the end, the fire could be blamed on the owners themselves, who had shown a shocking lack of interest in safety. As early as 1927, they had been warned about the number of combustible draperies in the building, but failed to heed the warnings. Even worse, there were no instructions in the rooms as to where guests should go in the event of a fire.
Amazingly though, the hotel later re-opened, although it was demolished in 1976 and at office building now stands in its place.
COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.