The Great Chicago Fire – and lessons still to be learned
By Jim Thompson
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 email@example.com.