One of the biggest fires in history and the worst tragedy in the history of world theater took place in the walls of the Iroquois Theater of Chicago, which miraculously survived the Great Chicago Fire. It took twice as many lives as the Great Fire that had blazed through the city three decades earlier. “It would have been better if the damn theater had burned then,” said shocked contemporaries.
Words are powerless to convey what happened at the Chicago Theater on December 30, 1903. We shall therefore confine ourselves to a brief chronicle.
The Iroquois, which opened a little over a month ago, is playing the musical Drury Lane. Full house. There are 1,600 seats in the theater, but the audience is much larger – hundreds of people stand in the aisles.
Three o’clock in the afternoon, the beginning of the second act. Under the moon, an acetylene lamp, the couples dance. A spark falls on the muslin curtain, wicked hot tongues run quickly upward, into a sham sky of flammable fabric.
And the sky erupted, showered with fiery snow. Red, black, and orange flakes swirled, danced in the rushing air currents. The first shiver of panic ran through the hall. Shouts and scolding could be heard-someone, not yet much, was pushing the slow-moving neighbors in the back.
The comic actor wanted to reassure the audience. He flew onto the flaming stage, shouting a few words to the conductor on the fly. The orchestra played something cheerful, but two cylinders of acetylene exploded over the stage, and the lights went out in the theater. The music stopped, and people rushed to the doors in terror…
Critics called the Chicago Iroquois Theater the most exquisite and perfect building in Chicago. But the fire safety in this elegant establishment was a mess.
The fire curtain was jammed, the emergency exits were draped and closed with clever bolts. The ventilation hatches were boarded up, and the fire escape simply was not completed. The theater turned out to be a death trap, with hundreds of spectators burned alive, suffocated, crushed.
Criminal negligence led to a fantastic Iroquois Theater fire victims: 575 people died on the day of the fire, 30 more died later in hospitals.
The theater owners, Davis and Powers, were arrested at the request of Chicago businessman Arthur Hull who had lost his wife and three children that terrible day. “The guilty will pay dearly for their carelessness,” the grief-stricken widower threatened.
But justice was not served – Davis and Powers escaped human justice. Lawyer Levi Meyer was expensive, but he knew his business. The defendants were released on bail almost immediately, and the trial became hopelessly bogged down in a casuistic quagmire.
The trial lasted three years and ended with the acquittal of the owners of Iroquois. The dodgy lawyer managed to prove that there was no direct connection between the deaths and the violation of fire regulations.
The latter, however, has been tightened. Thousands of theaters in America and Europe closed for renovations. The new rules required regular checks of the mechanisms that open smoke hatches; keeping fire curtains down, raising them only during rehearsals and performances; and clearly marking all emergency exits, whose doors must always open from the inside.
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