Tragedy is defined as “a disastrous event, especially one involving distressing loss or injury to life”. This definition is mild when placed in the context of the Chicago’s Iroquois Theater Fire of 1903. Like the disaster of the Titanic nine years later, which was considered “unsinkable”, the Iroquois Theater was advertised on it’s playbills as “absolutely fireproof”. This was a mistake.

One of the most tragic aspects of this fire was the fact that the audience was made up primarily of women and children, as the show they had gone to see “Mr. Bluebeard” was a Wednesday matinee playing during the holiday season. The theater was actually not supposed to be open and ready by then, but in an effort to take advantage of the holiday and sell more tickets, construction of the theater was rushed, leaving some of it incomplete. In addition, on that particular Monday afternoon, the theater had about 2,000 customers. Its occupancy limit was 1,724.

Gravestone of a victim

1. Gravestone of a victim

It was well into the second act that the fire started. A spark from a malfunctioning light ignited a drop curtain and the fire started. It spread quickly catching fire to drapery, decorations, and thousands of square feet of canvas scenery flats. Roof vents intended to handle smoke and heat had been sealed off, preventing the heat, smoke and gases from escaping – a result of the hurried construction. A fire curtain was supposed to lowered, but as luck would have it, the stage hand trained in its operation was out sick and his replacement was not prepared to manage it.

Despite the orchestra continuing to play, some of the actors found egress through a backstage door. This was good for them, but terrible for those patrons still up in the balconies. When the door opened, a huge influx of fresh air was pulled into the theater blowing the flames from the stage, right over the orchestra as well as a large portion of the audience, heat and smoke rising to the balconies.

2. The scene when the fire began. The  symbol on the left highlights where the fire is supposed to have started.

2. The scene when the fire began is highlighted by the star symbol on the left.

Two stage hands had tried hopelessly to the insufficient extinguishing tools available, but the fire was growing too big, too fast. The thousands of audience members began scrambling to escape, but due to the over-packed crowd there was no way for them to escape the small main doorway. Fire exits existed, but were either hidden by curtains, poorly marked (if marked at all), and in some cases, locked, to keep unpaid patron out. The theater employees were untrained and unprepared for a disaster such as this.

3. Officials measuring the exit where hundreds were killed and burned. Many of the exits opened inward, or were simply locked.

3. Officials measuring the exit where hundreds were killed and burned. Many of the exits opened inward, or were simply locked.

Finally, the flames grew so great that nobody could escape. Those who tried, had to crawl over the bodies of the dead or dying. Still, many were trapped by metal fencing used to separate the cheaper seating from the more expensive. A few jumped from windows, and some of them lived, for their fall was cushioned by the victims who came before them. A few more escaped by a variety of means, but almost half of the people in attendance that day, perished.

This was one of our countries most significant fires, but it didn’t end with only the loss of life. As a result of this tragedy, Chicago shut down all of its theaters until they underwent inspection and any needed renovations to ensure their fire safety.

The rest of America soon followed in those footsteps implementing new laws, regulations and codes regarding fire safety. They did this based on a number of lessons learned from the catastrophe that was the Iroquois Theater Fire (ITF).

4. Charred and darkened remains of the theater.

4. Charred and darkened remains of the theater.

First, it was determined that all exits need to be clearly marked, unobstructed and easily operated. The Iroquois Theater had actually used a European style lock called a bascule lock, which Americans were unfamiliar with.

In addition, locked gates blocked the descending stairs exiting the balcony sections. Another thing to come about as a result of the fire was the crash bar, also known as a panic bar.

At the time, automatic sprinklers were a fairly new thing. If the Iroquois Theater had installed them, it can be reasoned that this tragedy never would have happened. Consequently, theater stages must now be protected by sprinklers.

Draperies and curtains need to be fire resistive. These were the primary reason that growth stage of the ITF happened so fast. Between the draperies, curtains, decorations and wood, the theater has such a tremendous fuel load, the fire grew out of control very quickly. Fire resistive materials would have slowed or even halted this growth.

Greed is bad, bad thing. Just as theater management rushed construction for that extra holiday money, they also let it way more people than the building allowed for. This caused major crowding and egress problems when the fire started and it is documented that very many of the people who died that day, were crushed or trampled by other patrons. This led to much stricter enforcement of building occupant load limits.

As mentioned earlier, two employees tried feebly to extinguish the fire. When that effort failed, panic and chaos quickly set in among everybody in the building. If employees had been trained in emergency evacuation procedures, they may have been able to help facilitate an orderly and effective escape.

Ultimately, the incident at the Iroquois Theater was a horrible tragedy that resulted in great improvements in multiple aspects of fire safety including policies, procedures, ordinances and design.


FPP (2005) Fire Prevention Applications (1st editon) pg. 11
Oaklahoma State University; Stillwater Oaklahoma
“tragedy.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
“Iroquois Theater Fire.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 28 Mar 2009,
“Iroquois Theater Fire.” Chicagology (As viewed April 11, 2009)
“The Iroquois Theater Fire.” Eastland Memorial Society (April 11, 2009)

“A Tragedy Remembered” National Fire Protection Association , NFAP Journal July/August 1995
“Exit Devices: Von Duprin Changes the Face of Commercial Security”; Nov 5, 2008
Article Alley Jenny Schweyer,
Img. 1 – Flickr (johnmartine63)
Img. 2, 3 – Karl J. Sup Collection, Eastland Memorial Society (April 11, 2009)

Img. 4 – Chicago Tribune,,0,6395565.story