December marks the anniversaries of two disasters in Chicago history: the fire at Our Lady of Angels School and the Iroquois Theatre fire.
Just as the sinking of Titanic in 1914 resulted in dramatic changes in maritime regulations, these tragedies became the catalyst for eventual improvements in building codes that, despite the heart-breaking loss of human life, make our world safer.
On Dec. 1, 1958, just as the school day was ending, a fire broke out at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago. The fire originated in the basement near the foot of a stairway but the resulting smoke, heat, fire and toxic gas cut off the normal means of escape through the building’s corridors and stairwells. The fatalities included 92 students and three nuns, and many others were injured from jumping out windows. At that time, a grandfather clause did not require schools to retrofit to new standards if they had already met previous regulations, so the school was legally compliant with 1958 fire codes. This disaster lead to major improvements in standards for school design and fire safety codes.
The Iroquois Theatre fire occurred during a matinee on Dec. 30, 1903. Many of the estimated 2,200 patrons in attendance were children. At least 602 people died in the fire, but not all deaths were reported because some of the bodies had been removed from the scene. It remains the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history. Just as Titanic was dubbed “unsinkable,” the Iroquois was originally billed as "absolutely fireproof." The theater included a number of safety devices for that time, but structural issues lead to the disaster. We now have many improved standards as a result of this fire, including the requirement that all doors in public buildings open in the direction of the exit and the inclusion of panic bars on doors in high-occupancy spaces.
To learn more about the Our Lady of the Angels school fire and the Iroquois Theatre fire, we recommend the following titles, all located in our Illinois collection: