• On December 30th, 1903, the Iroquois Theater was hosting its largest show ever. 2000 patrons attended the showing of Mr. Bluebeard.

    Hazards were set in place for a perfect storm. Not unlike that of the Titanic disaster, the Iroquois Theater was advertised as "Absolutely Fireproof." The hatches for releasing toxic fumes were shut for winter. The fire exit was not built. British padlocks locked the doors. The 'asbestos' curtain was made of flammable material. The stairs were shut and locked, and so were the doors. Exit signs were off for lighting, and shower heads were not installed due to them being "ugly and unnecessary," in the owner's words.

    The theater was a Dutch oven. All it needed was ignition. Up on the catwalk, a few part-time stagehand boys played tag on a two foot wide walkway. A power light, that had too much electric through its cords was white hot where you could see internal metals. The lamp was pushed over, onto velvet materials, burning part of the stage. The audience from the balcony assumed this was part of the show, until people nearby screamed "Fire! Fire!"

    The main actor, Eddie Foy, yelled to the audience to stay calm, and process out of the building. He is proclaimed as a hero for doing so. Despite his efforts, panicking people climbed over one another to leave. About a hundred people died underfoot. People then split into groups. about half went to the stairway. The other half split two ways, one group went to search for the exits. Others tried jumping the balcony, where most of them met their deaths.

    The rest of fleeing patrons found death with toxic fumes from the fire. Only about twenty people burned to death. When one group found a fire exit, they shouted for everyone to come over, and forced open the doors. Running outside, they slipped and fell into the abyss of the alleyway below, which would be called Death Alley. More of the patrons thought safety was below and followed.

    On the staircases, long gates barred the way down, and some places the way up. One pack of people managed to force open the gates. They then met their death at padlocked doors with British locks, that no one knew how to open. Firefighters managed to break open one of these, and found only few people living at the foot of the door. These people were in critical condition, and suffered irreversible lung damage.

    After around two hundred people lined the alley, the jump was able to be broken by the bodies, and some people were able to escape using this method.

    In this event, 602 people died, 571 in the theater, and 31 in hospitals. After several investigations were run, fire inspectors were charged with passing bribes of free tickets to ignore the safety hazards, and officials agreed that if smoke hatches were opened, around two thirds of the dead would be alive. Otherwise, the owners were not sued, and the only other person charged was a bartender caught stealing money from the dead.

    In the aftermath, several codes and laws were established, making it a federal crime to ignore a safety violation, and to mandate electrical exit lights to stay lit, and shower heads to be installed and properly working. The panic exit device was then invented, a very common door lock, which features a bar that stretches across the doorway and opens only from the inside. The purpose of padlocking the doors was to prevent criminals from entering the theater through exit doors.

    This will have been a day of terror that will linger in many Chicagoans' minds.