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The Great Chicago Fire – and lessons still to be learned

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Jim Thompson

By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

The Great Chicago Fire occurred Oct. 8-10, 1871. Three hundred lives were lost; 17,000 structures were destroyed and 100,000 were left homeless. As a result, building codes were improved, and the city became one of masonry, not wood. (Source: Wikipedia as are many other citations in this column.)

The Iroquois Theatre Fire took place in Chicago on Dec. 30, 1903. It resulted in 602 deaths.  The theatre’s grand opening had just been on Nov. 23, 1903. It had only one entrance. 
Building codes were changed after this fire.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire took place on March 25, 1911. One hundred and 46 garment workers lost their lives; 123 of the victims were migrant women and girls aged 14 to 23. As a result, building codes, especially methods of egress and sprinkler systems were improved. The building still stands near Washington Square Park on the New York University Campus. I have visited the site.

The Cocoanut Grove Fire took place the night of Nov. 28, 1942. This was a nightclub in Boston. There is a hotel on the site now, and I have stayed there. Four hundred and 92 people died, largely because of the rotating door design. After this fire, rotating doors were changed by code so that they will collapse outward if a crowd surges against them.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire occurred on May 28, 1977, in Southgate, Ky. One hundred and 65 people died in this fire. As a result of this fire, building occupancy codes were changed. This is the reason today one often sees placards in public rooms delineating maximum occupancy.

The Lahaina Fire, Maui, Hawaii occurred on Aug. 8, 2023. It looks like the death toll will surpass 100, perhaps go well into three digits. Unlike the other fires listed above, there had been studies going on for many years outlining the almost exactly the conditions that occurred to cause this fire (dry indigenous grasses, high winds). Yet, no complete emergency plans were in place.

Above are just the highlights of some notable fires.

We have seen other displacement and fatality disasters. Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans come to mind. In this case, French engineers told the explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville that this was a lousy place for a city when it was founded in 1718.  

I am not here, for once, to rail against incompetent governments; there are plenty of other examples to serve that purpose.

Why I bring these matters up is to hopefully jolt at least a few people into taking control of your own welfare when out and about. Just because you are in a crowd of people at an event, there is no assurance that the crowd is behaving rationally or safely. Take charge of your own welfare, for no one else is going to do so.

Every event above happened to the individuals involved because they were lulled into thinking they were in a safe place.

I’ll tell a story about myself to illustrate. Laura and I wanted to go to the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square. I believe it was 1997. Unbeknownst to us, the NYPD starts closing the area of Times Square at about 3 p.m. on Dec. 31. Times Square is full. As the evening wears on, other perimeters are erected and closed as they fill up. We went out on the street about 10 p.m. and were at the corner of 42nd Street and 2nd Avenue about 11 p.m.  

We could see the “ball” to the east of us, so our visibility was OK. But our surroundings were not. The crowd was very tightly packed, and I was worried someone might fall. About this time, a group of drunk co-eds moved in front of us. One of these girls, very drunk, looked at me and said, “I am going to throw up on you.” 

I carefully took her by the shoulders and spun her 180 degrees. My next sentence, to Laura was, “We need to back out of here."

We moved a block back, to 1st Avenue, and the crowd was much thinner (and safer).

Now, whether it took the action of this drunk person or if on my own I figured out we were in a relatively dangerous place, I’ll never know.  

Just be aware of your surroundings, and use your brain. Others doing the same thing you are doing is no assurance of safety.  

Your life may depend on it.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at


Matthew (not verified)

14 August 2023

Jim mentioned 42nd street and some Avenue in NYC. I have noticed this when I watch some shows or movies. Like the show "Seinfeld" set in New York City. The characters would blurt out streets and avenues for locations of certain business or apartments and I'd have no idea where or what they were talking about. Then the characters would mention certain numbers for the NYC subway system. Still, It's all Greek to me. It's one thing if a public road has a specific name: Pennsylvania Ave., North Shore Drive, Peachtree Street, or Pete Rose Way; but when numbered big city streets and avenues are thrown out there, I lose my bearings. Just an observation.... There were scenes of Maui citizens jumping into the surf to escape the flames. Thankfully, the ocean at that latitude is warm and calm. Earth's combustibles, wind and fire make for a very destructive force. Am I brave or oblivious? Because I've never really felt uncomfortable in crowds or enclosed venues, even during fires or other incidents. I've been in around some tight spots throughout the years due to my occupations and side hustles. But then again, I get compensation for many of those details. The few things that will scare me is a microphone and a stage or a box store during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Black Friday or an extemporaneous speech may as well be the Great Chicago Fire as far as I'm concerned. I'd rather be in Samoa to ring in the New Year. Then hop on a boat to American Samoa and do it again the day before.

Jim Thompson (not verified)

14 August 2023


Manhattan is laid out in a grid. The Streets are east - west, with the lower numbers starting near the south end of the island and going north. When you get in the 120s, you are in Harlem, the north end of the island. 42nd Street crosses the island at the south end of Times Square (which is not a square but two triangles. The Avenues run north-south, starting on the west side of the island with the numbers going up as you go east. Starts with 1st Avenue and goes to 9th Avenue (I don't think there is a 10th). Manhattan is not much bigger than is shaped a lot like Rocky Fork Lake. Only difference is Rocky Fork Lake is oriented east - west while Manhattan is north - south. Re crowds. I have had you in a small crowd at the Guatemala City Airport. It is easy to see why you are not intimidated. You are head and shoulders above everyone (especially the diminutive Guatemalans) and you are the big man in the crowd. No one is going to pick on you, but they might pick your pocket, as I warned you before we waded into that crowd.

Matthew (not verified)

14 August 2023

In reply to by Jim Thompson (not verified)

I prefer the wide-open Interstate Highway System over the 5th Avenue congestion. Illinois has 12 Interstates and Nebraska has one. I just saw where there's an I-2 now, in McAllen, Texas. Re crowds: I patronized 2 different Buc-ees in one day and I survived. That was on I-75. The most recent Interstate I traveled before that was I-5 in May. I hit up an In-N-Out Burger there.

Matthew (not verified)

14 August 2023

In reply to by Jim Thompson (not verified)

Jim was really sweating those pick pocketers. Haha! The Guatemalan and Mayan people were nice and respectful. It was amazing how relatively close (geographically speaking) Central America is to my 'America.' The Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea is like a time warp, or a basic human rights-free zone. Think about Haiti, Cuba, and the other impoverished Central American Countries. Even Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands face day-to-day struggles. And I sincerely wonder why tropical paradises live in poverty, despair, or substance abuse problems. But then again, we have Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Indian Reservations, and every inner city controlled by Democrats for 60 years... I explained the Guatemalan climate and people to a friend at work. He wonders why it's not a booming and prosperous economy. Like many things in the realm of human suffering, it all depends on if individuals are oppressed by an over-bearing and corrupt government. Or many succumb to the culture of drug and alcohol abuse being the norm.

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