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  • Peter McGuire

Trapped Inside: When Fires Cause Stampedes

Part 8 in a series on human stampedes and crushes.

Read part 7

Did you know that most fire code regulations are designed to prevent deadly stampedes in times of danger? I'm Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.

We now come to a large class of human stampedes that I haven’t touched on yet: those inside buildings. This kind of crush can be entirely blamed on the construction and operation of the buildings but, as with all crushes, blame is often placed on the victims. Reports through history imply that if crowds could exit buildings in an orderly manner, these crushes could be avoided. However, when you are literally burning to death, it is the correct and rational thing to try and exit as quickly as possible.

As a result, many of the fire-safety measures that have been enacted throughout history are also anti-crush measures. A main goal of fire safety is to allow buildings to be evacuated quickly. Any number of things can go wrong with a structure, and saving lives is the first priority in a disaster. However, just because a lesson is learned in one incident in one city, doesn’t mean the rest of the world updates every building. Fire codes must be updated and enforced, and most have grandfather clauses so building owners don’t have to make updates right away.

Here is a tour of the deadliest crushes inside buildings to show the slow progress we’ve made towards building and fire safety. This history focuses almost entirely on the U.S. and U.K. because of the reporting bias in the English language and the wide disparity in building codes worldwide.

Glasgow, 1849

An article from the day after the incident gives us vivid details of an early theater stampede at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. It appears that shortly after the end of the first act someone lit his pipe with a piece of paper which he dropped, still lit. This “came in contact with an escape of gas, and produced a small flame.”

While the flame was quickly extinguished, fear spread through the attendees. The actors on stage, including the owner, tried to calm the crowd by announcing that the fire had been put out but people began to run for the only exit. It’s noted that when firefighters eventually tried to access the upper story window, they had to smash through the masonry with crowbars to open it and then found it too small to move bodies through.

The article goes into great detail explaining how the theater was showing a low-class pantomime, the price of admission had been reduced, and the night was Saturday, so the theater was well-filled with the working class. “The audience rushed downwards in the terror of some undefined calamity; but most lamentably they were brought to a halt by some of them stumbling at the first landing above the flight of stairs from the street door. They crushed upon each other so rapidly that they soon formed a compact mass, and all chance of escape was gone. Those behind unaware of the nature of this obstruction, and hearing the shrieks from below, pressed on more furiously than ever, only of course to augment the catastrophe.”

Firefighters found the entrance totally obstructed with bodies

Firefighters arrived and found the entrance totally obstructed with bodies. They chopped down a wooden partition and “a frightful scene presented itself. A mass of bodies were found closely packed together, with the damp sweat of death on many a face.” The article goes on to explain how the theater owner tried many times to stop the stampede and eventually resorted to dragging people back up the stairs, away from the crush. It notes that “The dead almost all belong to the working classes, and last night was perhaps the saddest ever known to that class in Glasgow.” The death toll reached 61 by 1 in the morning.

The article ends by explaining that this theater is “the most beautiful and extensive one out of London” and that a famous comedian would be performing there soon.

Perhaps as interesting as the details the article includes (two references to the victims being working class and the wonderment at their terror), are the details it omits. No discussion of the layout of the theater that funneled everyone towards a single, easily-blocked exit. No lamenting the lack of other exits and the barring of the upstairs window. No concern about a guy lighting his pipe with an open flame and dropping it on the ground. No discussion of theater fires or the building’s past fires.

So, for our purposes, it might help pull back the camera and provide some context. A German civil engineer, August Foelsch, studied theater fires in 1877 and found that out of 252 theaters, more than a quarter had burned down in their first five years of operation and a further 45% burned down in their first twenty years of operation. The average longevity for a theater in his sample was 22.5 years.

A short index of theater fires (from Fires in Theatres by Eyre Massey Shaw, 1876)

Lighting in theaters often started fires. The most popular method was lime lighting, which involved a gas-powered blowtorch slowly burning a block of lime, and gave rise to the expression “being in the limelight.” By the late 19th century, this gave way to arc lighting, where electricity is passed through the air, giving off light as it ionizes the air particles. This is the same effect as lightning. These were encased in glass, which, while better than a literal open flame like lime lighting, was easily broken. Either method makes for a great ignition source for fabric curtains and plywood sets.

Theater deaths in this period were also attributed to stockpiles of gauze (which is highly flammable); discarded woodwork, canvas, and rope; unmarked and unlit exits; locked exits during performances; lack of fire extinguishers; and lack of fire alarms.

It’s safe to say that theater fires were a common problem in the 19th Century. The Theatre Royal was built in 1829 when the previous Theatre Royal had burned to the ground, and the new building had caught fire in 1840. The stampede occurred in ‘49. The building burned to the ground in 1863. So, I think we have to ask, is a “panicked stampede” a reasonable characterization of people who become trapped behind a building’s exit and die, fleeing real or perceived danger? Whose interests are served by blaming the crowd?

Brooklyn, 1876

By the late 19th Century, it was popularly understood that a panicked evacuation of a building could block the exits, and was therefore as dangerous as the fire itself. This is why, when the sets backstage at the Brooklyn Theatre caught fire, the actors tried to carry on the play to avoid a panic. This example shows why treating crushes as a behavioral issue is ineffective.

On December 5th, 1876, somewhere around a thousand patrons watched the beginning of the fifth act of the Two Orphans. They were unaware that minutes before, the stage manager had mobilized the stage crew to beat out a small fire on a curtain that had slipped into a light. Attempts to put out the fire continued to spread it around as the actors launched into act 5.

From the actor’s position on stage, inside of a canvas set with its own four walls and a top, they couldn’t see the increasing mayhem around them. An actor backstage whispered through the back of the set that the fire had spread and they would need to evacuate. This warning was repeated when another actor entered the scene. She said her first few lines and then whispered “The fire is steadily gaining.”

By now the audience could see bits of flaming debris begin to land on the top of the set and began to crowd the aisles. The three women on stage now stepped out of the set and urged the crowd to stay in their seats as cinders rained down around them. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the women kept the audience calm in a kind of trance that broke when one actress was startled by a flaming piece of wood that dropped and almost burned her. Apparently, at this point, panic broke out, and people ran.

The bottom floor and the first gallery were evacuated easily enough. The main exits stood at the end of a lobby that extended half a block past a hotel to the theater itself. The first gallery had a long, straight hallway that descended to the lobby. The second gallery, called the family circle, was not as lucky. Their only exit consisted of a long, descending stairwell, a right turn into a hallway, and then a left turn down a second stairway.

It took less than four minutes for the theater to fill with a thick, noxious, blue-black smoke. As the theater grew hot, the roof burst into flames.

Charles Vine remained seated in the family circle as the rush for the stairway became blocked. As smoke filled the air, he realized that jumping to the lower gallery would be his only chance of survival. He did just that, severely cutting his groin on the iron-backed chairs. There, he followed the example of survivors who remained on that level, climbing over the trampled bodies of those who had fallen in the haphazard evacuation. The Fire Marshall reported that Vine was the last person to escape the family circle alive.

Firemen and police officers cleared survivors from the lobby and lower gallery. When they tried to clear the family circle, they could not get past the first staircase due to thick smoke. They heard no movement in the hallway above them and when they shouted up, they heard no reply. By this point, everyone had likely died of smoke inhalation, trapped by dead bodies on the stairs. Emergency responders left the building and at 11:45, less than a half-hour after ignition, the roof collapsed, engulfing the remaining building in flames. Firefighters focused on spraying water on surrounding buildings to contain the blaze. They assumed from the silence on the second gallery that casualties had been minimal.

When firefighters entered the building the next day, everything had collapsed into the basement. A final death toll was never determined with accuracy because the dead had fallen into a large pile and burned, making a huge pile of heads, limbs, and trunks. It took three days to remove the bodies, which were buried in a mass grave at a cemetery nearby. Estimates range from 278 to 293 deaths in all.

The coroner’s report and inquest found that the stairways leading to the family circle were to blame for the majority of the deaths, caused by smoke inhalation as patrons waited to evacuate. It also blamed the laxness of theater policy for putting out fires backstage.

Add to those causes a misunderstanding about human stampedes.

I think we can add to those causes: a misunderstanding about human stampedes. Actors and management tried to avoid a deadly panic by telling patrons to stay calm and in their seats as the stage burned around them. Delaying evacuation wasted precious minutes the top gallery needed. Regardless of how orderly the evacuation was, it could not be accomplished in the minutes they had before smoke took their lives.

In response, New York City cracked down on fire code enforcement throughout the city, requiring that before performances, the fire department test fire alarms, doors, curtains, and ensure that aisles and fire exits remain unblocked. Unfortunately, only more exits, more stairways, and wider hallways could have saved the hundreds of people in the top gallery.

The city set up relief for families of the victims but this was quickly shut down because of reports of dishonest grifters taking relief. The city instead urged private philanthropists to provide relief, and the Brooklyn Theatre Fire Relief Association was considered so successful that Brooklyn eliminated all “outdoor relief,” which referred to welfare a person could access without committing into an institution, programs like free food and supplemental income as opposed to workhouses. By 1900, the model was widely adopted in the United States and most cities eliminated outdoor relief. This was considered an anti-corruption measure to prevent relief money originating from taxes from being spent buying votes. Instead, it encouraged dependence on philanthropists and the goodwill of the very rich.

Chicago, 1903

The Iroquois Theatre fire was the deadliest single-building fire in American history with 602 deaths. By 1903, fireproofing was one of the top priorities for theaters, especially large, opulent theaters like the Iroquois. Addressing patrons’ well-founded fears of dying in a fire, the Iroquois billed itself as “absolutely fireproof.” Despite this, unofficial examinations by Fireproof Magazine and the Chicago Fire Department suggested that the theater was anything but. The building had no sprinklers, alarms, phones, or water connections.

Somewhere around 2,100 people crowded the theater on December 30, filling every seat plus standing room at the back and the aisles. Early in the second act, an arc light ignited a curtain. The only fire prevention system available—unpressurized canisters of asbestos powder—couldn’t be hefted high enough to reach the fire and fell uselessly to the ground. The stage manager lowered the asbestos fire curtain, an innovation intended to stop fires from spreading from backstage to the audience that most fire codes required. It snagged and did not descend and then caught fire because it was 50% wood pulp. The exhaust system, designed to draw air inward through exits and contain any fire by blowing it upwards out of the roof failed to automatically open as designed because the roof vents were nailed shut. Canvas sets hung above the stage ignited just before large backstage doors opened and the draft caused a large fireball to incinerate everyone towards the front of the top two galleries.

What happened next really illustrates how crushing contributed to the high death toll and why crushing is entirely the fault of building and event design. Those in the top gallery who survived the fireball fled down the stairs only to find them blocked by gates. These gates prevented patrons in these cheaper seats from sneaking down to the orchestra level during the performance. The majority of the 602 deaths happened just behind these locked gates as bodies became a hopeless pile trapped between fire and metal.

Somewhere around 125 people fled through windows onto an iron fire escape that had no lower level and therefore no path to the ground. They likely died of smoke inhalation.

Those who had any possibility of escape found several other obstacles. The exits directly from the auditorium were locked from the inside with a complex barring mechanism that locks the door at the top and bottom. Only three of these doors were successfully opened. Many of the exits were covered by flammable drapery and unknown to the audience. Somewhere around 200 people died crushed against a wall painted to look like a large door. The lighting went out shortly after the fire began and no exits were lit. Many of those who found their way to the main entrance doors were also crushed as they became trapped behind inward-opening doors the pressure of their bodies could not force outward.

Despite the staggering, top-to-bottom failure of the management to protect patrons, no criminal liability was found by any court.

The legal aftermath became a complex tangle of civil suits. It’s likely that criminal investigations were halted when the city of Chicago realized how liable it was for allowing the theater to ignore so many safety regulations. In the end, several authorities blamed the panic and chaos of the crowd. Owners pointed out that, after all, the theater had 30 exits. The architect insisted they would have been found and opened perfectly easily if the audience had not become “panic-stricken and stunned.”

Let’s pause for a moment to think about how you might feel seeing several rows incinerated by a fireball that has ignited everything around you and consider how colossally evil and weak these arguments were.

The Iroquois Theater fire is notable not only for being the deadliest single-building fire, but also for the changes that it inspired. All of the theaters of Chicago were closed as the fire department rolled out a new model fire code. All theaters would now have a maximum occupancy. Exits and exit routes would now need to be lit at all times by a separate power source from the building’s main power. Panic bars would now open doors from the inside, overriding any lock on the door with a large, horizontal bar. And most of all: all exits must open outward, not inwards. It should be pretty obvious how these all help prevent crushing incidents. Where crushing incidents occur as part of other disasters, they often account for the majority of deaths.

Why weren’t these lessons learned in earlier fires? One way that the numerous women and children who lost their lives in this case differ from those in Brooklyn or Glasgow is that they were upper-middle-class. One book describes them as “Chicago’s elect, the wives and children of its most prosperous business men and the flower of local society.” Perhaps that is why this is the fire that inspired serious expansion and enforcement of fire codes in major U.S. cities.

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