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Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903 Hardcover – August 30, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

It is often said that history repeats itself as farce; events of this year have proven that it can also repeat itself as tragedy. One hundred years after fire in Chicago's Iroquois Theatre killed 602 people in a matter of minutes, we have seen massive loss of life at nightspots in Chicago and West Warwick, Rhode Island. The Iroquois, of course, remains the worst theater fire in American history. Hatch grew up in Chicago, and his father, a fire-insurance executive, owned a book published in 1904 to raise money for families of the victims. The pictures and testimonies in that book began Hatch's deep interest in the fire. His riveting and often infuriating narrative is an indictment of the hubris and negligence of the owners and city officials. Hatch, a former writer and reporter for CBS News, utilizes interviews and correspondence with survivors of the fire, which lends a special poignancy to the story. This is a painful but superbly written work about a wholly unnecessary tragedy. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


"Working through eyewitness accounts, interviews with survivors and documents, Mr. Hatch takes us through the ordeal." — Wall Street Journal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 250 pages
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press; First Edition edition (August 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0897335147
  • ISBN-13: 978-0897335140
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #683,216 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By West Coast Reader on May 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With extraordinary thoroughness and an obvious love of his subject, Anthony Hatch makes vivid the story of Chicago's Iroquois Theatre fire of 1903.
With eerie parallels to the Titanic disaster, the Iroquois' programs boasted that the theater was "Absolutely Fireproof"-- but everyone involved seemed to think somebody else had done whatever was necessary to make that claim a reality.
The most deadly theater fire in U.S. history, the event is heartbreaking to read about, but Hatch has ferreted out the many human stories of the victims, survivors, reporters, firefighters, theater managers, and politicians who were involved, and found heroes as well as villains in this tragedy.
In spite of the lessons learned and laws changed as a result of this terrible loss, Hatch's research shows that many modern theaters repeat some of the careless mistakes of the Iroquois. Everyone who frequents public buildings would be well-advised to read this fascinating story and take its lessons to heart.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Robert A. Warren on April 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Hatch has written a taunt true story of grim reality. Like the Titanic, The Hidenberg, The Coconut Grove and other assorted and avoidable human disasters, the reader knows the ending before opening the book. But like all good reporters - and Mr. Hatch is first, last and always a well seasoned newsman - it is how he stacks the facts that counts. In Tinder Box it is not 'what' happens, as much as 'how' and 'why,' and finally, sadly, who pays the price. In today's era of litigation, much is made of the lawyer-sharks; but before their arrival, the victims of these man-made tragedies were like guppies swimming with piranhas. Only the victims paid. Mr. Hatch is never brutal, but neither does he turn aside from the grim facets of those ghastly events of that day in in late 1903,when 600 victims, many of them women and children, burned to death in an "absolutely fireproof" building. It is a great read, fast paced and gripping.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By drebbles VINE VOICE on January 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
On December 30, 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago was crowded beyond capacity with theatergoers eager to see Eddie Foy in "Mr. Blue Beard". The well-written and well-researched "Tinder Box" by Anthony Hatch describes what happened that tragic afternoon when a spotlight short-circuited starting a fire that eventually killed over 600 people.

Considering the fact that the fire happened over 100 years ago, with no living witnesses to interview and many facts have been lost in time, Hatch does an admirable job describing the events leading up to the fire, the fire itself, and the aftermath. He does an excellent job describing how the Iroquois came to be built and the haste with which it was built (it only took five months) and the shoddy workmanship involved, as well as how many officials were willing to turn their heads and ignore the many fire code violations at the Iroquois. His description of the crowded theatre the day of the fire is mind boggling; one victim in fact called the theater a fire trap as she went to her seat. There were over 500 more people than capacity in attendance; the exit doors opened in instead of out; and the person who was supposed to operate the fire curtain was a substitute who didn't know which lines actually worked the curtain. There was little done to help the audience and incredibly enough the actors continued to perform while the fire was burning. Hatch also gives descriptions of the fire victims and survivors, which make the tragedy even more real. Some of the ways people escaped the fire were incredible and there were many heroes that night. There were also many villains that night and Hatch describes they way people robbed some of the dead.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Borowy26 VINE VOICE on January 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Virtually forgotten in the present era, the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire killed more people in less than an hour than the celebrated Chicago Fire of 1871 which raged over the course of several days and destroyed much of the central district of the city. Thousands of people pass the site of the Iroquois tragedy on a daily basis without giving it a moment's thought. A combined theater and office building occupies the exact site of the Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street today. The theater has been extensively remodeled and stages Broadway quality performances.

As the author explains Iroquois fire was a disaster that could have been avoided. The construction of the building was not completed when the theater was opened to the public. The architect failed to incorporate significant fire safety features into the cost cutting design. In many instances, the building contractors had not finished their work: two examples, the rooftop venitalation system and the exterior fire escape, itself, were not even fully functional! The closed vents trapped toxic gases and smoke which asphyxiated audience members in their seats.

The pennypinching theater owners failed to purchase adequate fire extinguishers to be placed throughout the building and assigned only one employee to act as fireman for the entire building. The supposedly fire resistant curtain was shoddy both in terms of the inexpensive materials substituted for asbestos and its poor workmanship. When put to the test, none of the stage hands knew how to operate the curtain and it jammed during its descent. Thus the fire could not be contained on the stage and it spread into the auditorium. Panicked patrons struggled to find their way out, but the emergency exits were not clearly identified and many of the doors were locked.
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