The Weekly Reflektion Week 34 / 2020

The Iroquois Theatre in Chicago was opened on the 23rdNovember 1903. The theatre was described as the most beautiful in Chicago and critics claimed there were few theatres in the USA that could rival its architectural perfections. The location of the theatre was deliberately chosen to attract women on day trips from outside Chicago since it was ‘safe’ being near the police patrolled Loop shopping district. The theatre had a capacity of 1602 with three audience levels. The theatre was also described as ‘absolutely fireproof’ in advertisements and billboards. On the 30th December 1903 there was a fire at the theatre that caused more than 600 deaths?

What message do you send about how safe your facility is? Does the performance of your safety systems actually live up to the expectations you have communicated? How would it look if a major accident did occur and the investigators had the benefit of hindsight to judge you?

The opening of the theatre had been delayed partly due to the inability of the architect to complete drawings on time. During construction an editor of Fireproof Magazine toured the building and noted the absence of stage draft shaft, the exposed reinforcement of the arch, the extensive use of wood trim and the inadequate provision of exits. A representative for Chicago Fire Department made an unofficial tour of the theatre just before the opening and noted there were no sprinklers, alarms, telephones, or water connections. These deficiencies were pointed out to the theatres fire warden. The fire warden explained that he could not do anything since he would be sacked if he took these points up with the owners. When the representative for the Fire Department took the deficiencies up with his commanding office, he was told that nothing could be done since the theatre already had a fire warden that was responsible for fire safety. The onsite fire equipment was limited to 6 dry powder (mostly sodium bicarbonate) fire extinguishers normally used for dousing chimney fires in residential houses. An asbestos fire curtain was installed that could be lowered on the stage to prevent escalation of any fire. 

On the 30th December 1903 there a performance of the popular musical Bluebeard. Tickets were sold for all the seats and there were hundreds that used the standing room at the back of the theatre. It is estimated that there were about 2200 people in the theatre and many of these were children. During the performance of the song In the Pale Moonlight, the stage was illuminated with blue-tinted spotlights and a muslin curtain to create a night scene. Sparks from an arc light, most likely caused by an electrical short circuit ignited the curtain. The flames spread to the gallery and set fire to thousands of square feet of highly inflammable painted canvas scenery. The stage manager tried to lower the asbestos curtain, but it hung up on a light reflector that stuck out from an arch on the stage. People had difficulty finding the fire exits under the draperies on the north side of the building and then had problems operating the new type of locks installed on the doors. The dancers and performers on stage fled backstage and managed to escape through the theatres main rear exit. The doors were particularly large since they were used for moving scenery sets in and out of the theatre. When this door was opened, air rushed into the theatre escalating the fire. Some people managed to open the massive double freight doors in the north wall causing an inrush of air that caused a fireball that shot through the theatre. The fireball streaked up to the upper vents and set fire to everything in the dress circle and gallery. There was no fire alarm box or telephone in the theatre and the alarm was eventually raised by a stagehand who was ordered to run to the nearest firehouse. 

575 people were killed on the day and at least 30 others died of their injuries. The victims were asphyxiated by the fire, smoke and gases, or were crushed to death when the crowds desperately tried to get out of the theatre. Many were charged with crimes in the aftermath of the disaster however most charges were dismissed three years later due to the delaying tactics of the owners’ lawyers and their use of loopholes and inadequacies in the city’s building and safety regulations. There were also allegations of bribery of the fire inspectors to turn a blind eye to non-compliance with the fire codes.

When people buy tickets to watch a performance at the theatre their first consideration is not whether it is safe and whether the theatre complies with the fire regulations. They expect thatit is safe and that someone has taken responsibility for safety and compliance. The people should of course check where the fire alarms, escapeways and fire exits are however you cannot expect that they will do this, and it should never be difficult for them to find what they need. When you are considering the safety systems for your facility how do you ensure the expectations to these systems are fulfilled and that the people that need to do something do know what they should do? Are you clear on who has the responsibility to ensure the necessary systems and procedures are in place?

Reflekt AS