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Safety protection – then vs. now: Disaster at the Iroquois Theatre

Ramtech’s Content Marketing Manager Jon Bennett looks at how safety protection has evolved over the years, starting with a tragedy at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, USA. Would this awful event still have happened in modern times? Jon explains more.


As the new year festivities approached on December 30th 1903, a theatre in Illinois, United States, was packed full of an excited audience ready to watch a matinee performance of ‘Mr Blue Beard’. Little did they know at the time that the theatre, and many of them, would not get to see the second act. The Iroquois Theatre was well known in Chicago at the time. It opened in late November 1903 in what one drama critic said was “the most beautiful … in Chicago, and competent judges state that few theatres in America can rival its architectural perfections …”. It was clear though those appearances were deceiving. Up to the opening, the theatre had been plagued by issues including workforce unrest, delays in architectural planning and, most pertinently, fire safety issues that were highlighted by Fireproof Magazine and even the local fire department at the time.

A disaster waiting to happen…and it didn’t take long.

Just a month into opening, the issues highlighted by the editor of Fireproof Magazine and the fire department were to become frighteningly real. Some of the issues noted included:

  • Inadequate fire exits
  • Wood trim being used to frequently
  • No sprinklers
  • No fire alarm warnings
  • A lack of telephones
  • No water connections

In fact, it came to light that the only fire protection of any kind was the existence of six ‘Kilfyre’ fire extinguishers that were designed for residential fires. These powder-based extinguishers were designed for fires originating low down on a surface such as a floor – which as we’ll find out, were totally inadequate for the Iroquois Theatre.

The venue was a sell out as the performance started, with around 2,200 people packed into the 3 tiers of the hall.
As the second act – a night scene – was being prepared at around 15.15, it seems like sparks from an arc light set fire to a muslin curtain. Quickly, the ‘Kilfyre’ extinguishers were used…but it was already too late, as the fire was spreading high above the stage. Sadly, things would get no better.

The theatre was full of highly flammable painted canvas paintings, locked gates and more hazards. Even the fire curtain between the stage and the audience, supposed to separate the areas in the event of a fire, not only snagged halfway down but was primarily made of wood pulp and asbestos. In short, the theatre was fuelling its own bonfire.

There are many sources online that explain more about the intricate details of the fire. As a simple overview, the severe lack of exits, locked gates and badly designed passageways and stairs meant that when a fireball extended into the audience seating area and started to engulf the theatre hall, many people couldn’t make it out, or were crushed whilst doing so.
Due to the lack of a fire alarm or telephone, the local fire department were only alerted when one of the stagehands had literally run to the nearest fire station.

In all, 575 people died on the day of the fire, with more passing away in the following weeks. Just a day later, changes started to happen to try to prevent a similar situation. Some theatres eliminated standing room. Building and fire codes were reformed and all over the US and Europe, where theatres were retrofitted with better fire safety systems and emergency planning.

What would happen in the modern day?

There is every chance that if the spark from a stage light had occurred in modern times, nothing would have happened. The initial fuel for the fire seems to have been the stage curtain – which are now available in a fireproof material.
Even if there had been a fire, modern extinguishers would have been able to cope with the initial fire if caught early enough and the correct extinguisher type was used. Looking even beyond this, modern building regulations are very different now too. Better fire exits would have allowed more people to evacuate easily. The designs of staircases and other corridors would be more suitable. Both fixed and temporary fire alarm systems exist to alert not only onsite staff, but those offsite too including the emergency services.
It is a tragic reality that hundreds of men, women and children would have been saved if the event had happened in later times…but the lessons learnt from this event have helped shape the safety we enjoy today.