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The Church of the Company Fire occurred on 8 December 1863 in Santiago, Chile.  This was one of the deadliest fires in history, as it killed between two and three thousand people, mostly women.

The Church of the Company of Jesus

The Church of the Company of Jesus (or Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús in Spanish) was a Jesuit church that stood in downtown Santiago, Chile.  The Church of the Company was affiliated with the Marian cult, and 8 December was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The congregation chose to celebrate this religious festival by festooning the interior of the church in candles, gas lights and wall coverings.  A statue of the Virgin stood on the main altar, above a half-moon shaped candelabra.

The Fire

The fire started a few minutes before 19:00, when a gas lamp at the top of the main altar ignited some of the wall hangings.  Someone attempted to douse the flames with another cloth, but this only caused the fire to jump to the rest of the wall hangings, and from there, to the wooden roof.

The congregation that evening was composed mostly of women.  The crowd panicked and attempted to escape through the side doors.  However, the side doors were closed, because they only opened inward, and closing them created more space for the large crowd of worshippers.  The panicked crowd found it could not escape through the side doors and rushed for the main exit. 

The women of that day wore large hoop skirts; these garments contributed to the crush of people and the trampling that ensued as the crowd attempted to escape through the single main exit.  Soon this, the only remaining exit, became blocked by a wall of human bodies, trapping many inside.  The wooden tower of the church collapsed at about 10 PM, killing all still inside.

The absence of any sort of fire brigade in Santiago, Chile, at that time contributed heavily to the devastation of The Church of the Company Fire.

Aftermath

Between two and three thousand people perished in The Church of the Company Fire.  This made up between two to three percent of the total population of Santiago, which was 100,000.  Whole families were killed in The Church of the Company Fire.  Clean up took about ten days.  Many bodies were so badly burned that they could not be identified, and these were buried in a mass grave at the Cemetario General de Santiago. 

The remains of The Church of the Company of Jesus were destroyed.  A garden was planted in its place, and a statue erected where the main altar had been.  The garden and statue continue to exist, although the statue now belongs to the old Congressional garden.  A copy of this statue has been erected at the entrance to the Cementario General de Santiago.

On 20 December 1863, Jose Luis Claro y Cruz organized the first Volunteer Firemen’s Corp in Santiago, Chile, in response to the tragedy. 

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