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The Iroquois Theater Fire occurred on 30 December 1903 in Chicago, Illinois, USA.  It was the single deadliest structural fire in US history, killing a total of 602, with 571 killed within twenty minutes of the outbreak of the fire.

The Iroquois Theater

The Iroquois Theater stood at 24-28 West Randolph Street in Chicago.  The theater had been advertised as "Absolutely Fireproof."  However, construction was rushed so that the theater would be finished in time to receive holiday crowds.  This meant that the structure was non-compliant with current fire codes, and structural flaws such as incomplete rooftop venting and unfinished fire exits were to contribute to the blaze.

In addition to structural flaws, the fire exits in the Iroquois theater were badly placed.  The designers had hidden them behind curtains and left them unmarked, for aesthetic reasons.  This made the metal fire doors difficult for panicking theater patrons to find.  The fire doors also used bascule locks, a type of lock common in Europe.  Americans, however, were largely unaccustomed to bascule locks and those patrons who did manage to find the fire exits could not, for the most part, operate the bascule locks in order to open the doors.  In addition, at the time of the fire, many of the lobby doors were locked, and the stairs to the balcony were blocked by locked gates.  This was done to keep patrons from sneaking down to the more expensive seats; when the fire broke out, it prevented many from escaping.

Fire

The fire began when an arc light shorted out at about 15:15 and ignited a muslin curtain.  The fire spread to the backdrops and began to consume thousands of square feet of painted canvas scenery flats.  The six canisters of firefighting equipment on hand were insufficient to douse the flames.   The protective asbestos curtain, meant to come between the audience and the stage to contain the fire, malfunctioned that day.  Its regular operator was in the hospital, and his replacement did not know how to operate the curtain properly.  It became tangled in its own wooden rails, as well as the trolley-wire used to suspend actors above the audience in simulation of flight.

The performers continued acting until the fire grew out of control.  When they escaped through the large doors backstage, the influx of fresh air created a fireball that swept over the audience, incinerating those in the gallery and on the balcony, 50 ft (15 m) away.  As more patrons attempted to escape through doors and windows, the in-flowing air combined with the 60 ft (18 m) high ceilings created a chimney effect that only worsened the inferno.

Over 100 people fell to their deaths from the roof of the Iroquois Theater as they attempted to escape the flames.  However, these corpses cushioned the falls of others and ultimately saved lives.  The severe flame and intense smoke meant that firefighters and jumpers could not make good use of safety nets, though some victims escaped with the help of university students from a neighboring building, who created a makeshift bridge across the alley with a ladder and some planks.

Aftermath

In the aftermath of the Iroquois Theater Fire, corpses were found piled 7 ft (2.1 m) high around the doors and windows inside the structure.  Many of these victims succumbed to smoke inhalation or suffocation from trampling.    Of the 300 actors, dancers and stagehands, only five were killed in the blaze.

Public outcry arose in the wake of the Iroquois Theater Fire as it was discovered that fire inspectors had been bribed to overlook code violations.   Those charged with crimes included the Mayor himself, Carter Harrison Jr.  Ultimately, only one conviction came of the Iroquois Theater Fire, and that was of a tavern keeper, for the crime of looting bodies.

By 1907, 30 families had received settlements of $750 each.

The exterior of the Iroquois theater remained largely undamaged, and was reopened later as the Colonial Theater, which was torn down in 1926.

As a result of the Iroquois Theater Fire, building and fire codes were reformed and theaters were closed for renovation across the US and Europe.  The reforms included the introduction of regulations stipulating that fire doors be clearly marked, and hinged to be pulled open from outside as well as pushed open from inside.

Following the Iroquois Theater Fire, the Von Duprin exit device company created the first panic exit device.  These devices are now required by building codes for high-occupancy structures. 

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