Failure: Iroquois Theatre Fire
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Date: December 30, 1903
Type: Human Incompetence
Deaths: 602 (reported)

Within the first few days of it’s opening in November 1903, The Iroquois Theatre [figure 1] in Downtown Chicago was known by its magnificence for its use of marble and mahogany inside the building’s interior. The six-story tall building advertised itself as “absolute fireproof” on playbills because of its use of an asbestos curtain which would separate the audience from a stage fire. [a]

On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre filled it’s 1724 seats for a matinee performance of “Mr. Bluebeard” featuring comedian Eddie Foy. Many mothers and their children filled all levels of the theatre for the holiday performance, maxing out the “standing room” capacity by bringing in an additional 1900 audience members inside the theatre. At approximately 3:15pm when second act of the performance began, stage hand William McMullen witnessed a bit of canvas from stage scenery touch a hot reflector behind a calcium arc spotlight causing the ignition of a flame. McMullen failed to put out the flame with Kilfyers (a patent powder) and a fire rapidly began spreading across the scenery above. At Eddie Foy’s entrance in Act II, pieces of the burning scenery started falling onto the stage prompting Foy to calm the audience. The asbestos curtain failed to drop onto the stage. When the stage company of 500 began exiting the theatre through their back stage exits, the cold air from the outside fueled the fire to blast into the audience igniting anything combustible. [figure 2 shows the damage in the front row seats because of the blast]. Nearly 575 individuals were perished in the fire after trying to flee the theatre but remained trapped inside [figure 3]. An additional 27 later died as a result from their injuries. [a]

The number of deaths occurring on the December 30th day could of been prevented had fire safety measures in the design of the building been implemented into the construction of it. Architect of the theatre Benjamin H. Marshall reportedly studied previous building fire cases to apply safety precautions into his design. In the final design, he sacrificed safety for appearance  by using drapery to obscure exit signs and used an exceedingly amount of wood trim. Ventilators and fire escapes were unfinished and there was an absence of many exit signs due to rush of opening the Iroquois Theater.  The theater did not have a backstage phone, fire alarm system, and apt fire fighting equipment (i.e. the use of Kilfyers instead of fire extinguishers). Ventilators above the stage were nail together resulting in the back draft of the fire. The asbestos curtain jammed into stage equipment failing to perform is intended task.  Entrances to the upper levels balcony and gallery were bolted and locked during performances to prevent audience members from sneaking into other levels. Doors opened inwards into the theater resulting in the inability of the audience members to open them as others began to pile up against them trying to escape. Figure 4 shows one exits available to the theatre guests at the time of the fire. Many were trampled on the stairs and by others trying to escape.  [b]

The Iroquois Theatre Fire leads on the records for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as the deadliest single-building disaster in U.S. history. Immediately following the incident, theaters across the country and globe were shut down for immediate inspection of their fire safety. Many building and fire codes were reformed. [b] The Iroquois Theatre was reopened a year later as the Colonial Theater and later was replaced by Oriental Theater in 1926. [a]