- Paperback: 274 pages
- Publisher: Chicago Review Press; Reprint edition (February 1, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0897336097
- ISBN-13: 978-0897336093
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 43 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #603,464 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Tinder Box: The Iroquois Theatre Disaster 1903 Paperback – February 1, 2003
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"[Hatch]...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 wholly unnecessary tragedy." --Booklist
None of the many socialites and journalists who flocked to the shows were aware that city building inspectors and others had been bribed to certify that the theater was in good shape. In fact, the building was without a sprinkler system or even basic fire fighting equipment; there was no backstage telephone, fire alarm box, exit signs, a real asbestos curtain or ushers trained for emergencies.
A month later, at a Christmas week matinee, the theater was illegally overcrowded with a standing room only crowd of mostly women and children. During the second act, a short circuit exploded a back stage spotlight touching off a small fire which spread in minutes throughout the theater. Panic set in as people clawed at each other to get out, but they could not find the exits, which were draped. The doorways, locked against gate-crashers, were designed to open in instead of out, creating almost impossible egress.
The tragedy, which claimed more than 600 lives, became a massive scandal and it remains the worst theater fire in the history of the country.
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(1) The asbestos curtain had not snagged halfway down on a small scenery protrusion.
(2) Chicago city officials had done their job properly, and not looked the other way while still holding out their hands for freebies and money.
(3) The architectural design had focused less on a grand stairway where everyone from box seats to the cheap seats would mingle in luxurious surroundings and exit doors were concealed with velvet curtains. Instead, plenty of exits and clearly marked signs would have prevented piles of dead bodies at doorways.
We may have come a long way in fire safety, but after reading this, I wonder if the danger of large scale disastrous fires such as this will ever go away.
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. Hatch also covers the aftermath of the fire including the trial and how the owners tried to blame the victims and how evidence was tampered with.
Although Hatch did not write the book until 2002, he had started to research it back in the 1960's and at that time had interviewed a fireman who had fought the fire and a newspaper reporter who covered the fire. Those accounts helped make the scene of the fire real as I was reading the book. There was no spot photography at the time, so while there are pictures of the theatre before and after the fire, there are no actual pictures of the fire itself. But Hatch includes many drawings done at the time of the fire that show how horrible it was. He also includes editorial cartoons that show how much the fire touched the lives of people in Chicago. There is not a list of people who died in the fire because there was never an exact count of how many people did die.
"Tinder Box" is a well-written account of a tragic event in Chicago's history.
I live in Chicago and I read anything I can get my hands on about the city.