The Iroquois Theatre Fire: America's Deadliest Fire

By | November 9, 2022

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Ruins of Iroquois Theatre. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Although more people were killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history occurred nearly a century before the 9/11 attacks. On December 30, 1903, more than 600 people died after a fire broke out at a brand-new theater in downtown Chicago.

The Iroquois Theatre Fire

On the afternoon of December 30, the Iroquois Theatre was packed with teachers and children out of school for the holiday break. In fact, with more than 1,700 audience members enjoying the live musical comedy Mr. Bluebeard, it was about 100 people over capacity. Suddenly, at about 3:15 P.M., a stage light shorted out and launched sparks onto the stage curtain, which burst into flames. As one of the actors assured the audience that the fire would be quickly extinguished, the backstage crew failed to stop the fire from spreading with a primitive, ineffective flame retardant. Others backstage tried to escape through the theater's rear door, but many were killed in the backdraft, as the rush of air simply fed the fire.

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The Iroquois Theatre, shortly before the fire. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

No Escape

The Iroquois Theatre was something of a Titanic situation. Its architect, Benjamin Marshall, designed it with only one unlocked entrance, focusing instead on the grand stairway leading from the foyer to the balcony level, where everyone, regardless of their seat, could see and be seen. As the fire spread, the stampede of audience members desperate to flee caused a traffic jam on this staircase, and waves of people pressed against the locked doors. A few lucky people found exit doors hidden behind the draperies while others climbed to the roof and walked across a wooden plank to a neighboring building, although two of them fell to their deaths, and a passing railroad worker unscrewed the hinges from an outside door. After the fire was extinguished, firefighters—who weren't alerted until almost 20 minutes after the fire broke out, when a stagehand ran into a firehouse, as the theater had no phone or fire alarm box—found bodies stacked up to 10 feet high around the locked exit doors.