On December 30, 1903 a fire ripped through the Iroquois Theatre in Downtown Chicago. By the time the Chicago Fire Department extinguished the blaze, 602 patrons and employees were dead. It was one of the worst fires in American history.
The theatre had only opened the previous month and had been beset by labor issues. As is de rigueur for Chicago, there was corruption and bribes involved with the building and compliance with fire codes. Most significantly, the theatre only had one exit and entrance for all patrons on all three levels of the building. It also lacked proper ventilation, a sprinkler system, a fire department water connection, an alarm system, or even a telephone to call the fire department with.
When the fire did break out, it started at a matinee performance to an over-capacity crowd. It was estimated that there were 2,200 people in the 1,600 capacity building. One of the scene lights began sparking and caught a part of the stage curtain on fire. The inadequate fire extinguishers did not work, and the fire took off up the curtain. It was out of control within seconds.
Patrons and actors began to panic. Fire exits were locked and not clearly visable. Most people went for the only exit they knew, the illegal and inadequate front entrance. People began stacking up at the front door, unable to move. The lack of proper ventilation caused smoke and superheated gases out this door as well. Hundreds died in the carnage at the main entrance. Others escaped by breaking windows and jumping out. Many even used the coal hatch to get out to the street. By the time the Chicago Fire Department arrived on the scene, many of the victims were already dead.
The Mayor of Chicago ordered that the owners of the theatre be arrested along with fire inspectors and several theatre employees. A prosecution was put together, but the same group of lawyers represented all invovled. Eventually, a viable case could not be put together. Charges against all invovled were dropped years later.