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ON ' ": :



DING OF LIFE



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LIBRARY



UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA.



GIFT OF



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On the day following the burning of the Iroquois Theater, a citizen of Chicago,
who had lost two little nieces in the fire, asked a friend, who for many years had
made fire prevention a study, to go to Chicago immediately to investigate means for
rendering such fearful disasters impossible.

The work was undertaken earnestly, in the hope that good might be accomplished,
and this report was presented at a meeting of one of the great national engineering
societies in order to give publicity and to invite discussion.

The address has been reprinted in the present form, that its conclusions may
be brought to the attention of some who might not see them in the " Transactions"
of an engineering society.



ON THE

SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE

IN

THEATERS

BEING A STUDY FROM THE STANDPOINT OF AN
ENGINEER



BY



JOHN R. FREEMAN

PRESIDENT AMERICAN SOCIETY
OP MECHANICAL, ENGINEERS



AN ADDRESS MADE AT THE OPENING OF THE ANNUAL

MEETING OF THE SOCIETY IN NEW YORK CITY

DECEMBER 4, 1905





REPRINTED

FEOM THE

TRANSACTIONS OF THE SOCIETY

1906



T3F7



AND



JOHN



, PROVIDENCE, R.I



FOREWORD

The results which are set forth at length in these hundred pages
may be briefly summed up as follows :

1. It is not a difficult or an expensive matter to provide safeguards such that
a theater or other hall of public assembly may be made reasonably safe.

2. In the great theater fires of history the loss of life has commonly
resulted from the rapid spread of flame on a stage covered with scenery,
followed within two or three minutes by an outpouring of suffocating
smoke through the proscenium arch into the top of the auditorium,
before those in the galleries could escape. Death has come chiefly to
those in the balconies, and often within less than five minutes of the
first flame.

The three great safeguards are found to be:

1. The providing of ample, automatic, quick-opening smoke vents over the
stage.

2. The thorough equipment of the stage with automatic sprinklers by
means of which the action of the heat will promptly release, over the
burning scenery, a rainfall tenfold heavier than the heaviest thunder-
shower, drenching the scenery and extinguishing the flames.

3. The providing of especially ample exits and stairways from the gallery.

4. The foregoing transcend all other requirements.

The fire proofing or flame proofing of scenery is found to be of doubt-
ful value under the practical conditions of use.

The so-called fireproof paints are of very small fire-retarding value.

The asbestos curtain is found to possess much less endurance against
heat and flame than had been supposed.

The steel curtain covered with non-conductor on the stage side is
far better than the asbestos curtain, but may give trouble in lowering or
may permit large quantities of suffocating gas to be forced into the audi-
torium around its edges.

5. Dry-powder fire-extinguishers and hand grenades are likely to prove
worse than useless, by promoting waste of valuable time.



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.




No. 1096.*

ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.
A STUDY FROM THE STANDPOINT OF AN ENGINEER.

BY JOHN R. FREEMAN, PROVIDENCE, R. I.

(Member of the Society.)

Custom has decreed that the President of this Society should
choose his subject for the opening address of our winter meeting
from within some field of his own special work, and that the
address should be either a historical review, or an effort to lead
the thought of the evening into some useful line of advance in
applied science; and so I bring to you a topic that has been much
in my thought for two years past, and in one corner of the field
of fire protection, to which I have devoted a portion of my time
for twenty years.

It is a fair and moderate statement that the present practice of
the art of fire prevention, as applied to theaters and buildings of
public congregation, is from ten to twenty years behind the fire
protection of the best industrial works, and true that the fire hazard
to theater property in general, as measured by a comparison of
insurance rates, is ten to twenty times as great for the modern
theater as for the modern factory, f

* Presented at the New York meeting (December, 1905) of the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers, and forming part of Volume 27 of the Trans-
actions.

f At the time of the Iroquois fire the average cost of insurance per year on the
principal Chicago theaters was, on buildings 3.7 per cent., on furnishings and
fixtures 4.3 per cent., on scenery 4.7 per cent.

On the best fireproof theater buildings in Chicago it was about 1 per cent.,
with 2 per cent, on fixtures, furnishings, and scenery therein. On some of the
more hazardous theater structures in Chicago the rates were 6 per cent, and even
7 per cent, per year. The same insurance companies that insure these theaters
will insure a strictly first-class cotton mill, or even a first-class woodworking or
rubber factory, at iV to of 1 per cent, per year, when thoroughly protected by
automatic sprinklers, etc.

We must bear in mind that a comparison of insurance rates, while an excellent
guide, is uot a complete or accurate basis for a comparison of safety to life in



8 ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.

All of this is unnecessary. It is a wrong against the public that
should be righted. The actual fire hazard at the theater can
be made smaller than that of the factory by well- proved means,
the cost of which is not extravagant. The safeguards needed are
mostly simple; the main features of some of them are already
worked out and well proved within the great factories which you
engineers build and manage; the additional safeguards required
to be worked out, or adjusted for this special case the automatic
smoke vents the safe proscenium curtain the safe warming and
ventilation the proper arrangement of automatic sprinklers in
stage and dressing-rooms and storerooms, are within the field
of the Mechanical Engineer, and are mostly simple problems
when serious attention and skill are once directed to them.

As a society of engineers, we have a precedent for giving our
time to this study in the investigation made by the Austrian
Society of Engineers after the burning of the King Theater in
Yienna, and republished by them after the burning of the Iroquois.

In the great factories of New England first, and more recently
in those of the Middle States and Middle West, all represented
largely in our membership, there have been slowly worked out
the most advanced methods of fire prevention that are anywhere
to be found. This safety of the slow-burning American factory
has come first through an appreciation of the danger and then a
study by one engineer after another of how to meet it; then
a conscientious attention to perfection of detail, and then an
education of the average workman about the place into the
requirements Cor safety.

In the course of my own studies of the theater and auditorium
problem, I have seen almost everywhere conditions affecting the
safety of life that would not be tolerated by the managers of our
best industrial works, and all from simple failure to know or to
give attention.

For example, I have seen in one of the best New York theaters
the wedge-shaped space beneath the sloping floor of the audi-
torium used as a storeroom for trunks and properties. This room
was also the plenum chamber for the ventilation. Suppose that
rats and matches, spontaneous ignition of oily material, or any of

different theaters, for the questions of accident or death to audience and actors are
mostly settled within the first five minutes after fire breaks out, while the per
cent, of damage, that concerns the fire underwriter, may be in suspense for
an hour or more.



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS. 9

the obscure but frequent causes should start even a slow, smould-
ering fire in this room. Why is it not foreseen that the smoke
rising through the air ducts in the floor might throw the audience
into a panic and cause great loss of life ?

In one of the most famous halls in America I found the portable
wooden flooring, used sometimes to level up and transform the
main seating space into a ballroom, stored in a dark passageway,
which formed the main air chamber between the heating coils and
the concert hall, all thus kiln-dried to perfection, and when I
showed it to the manager and to an intelligent aldermanic com-
mittee and urged its immediate removal, they saw no danger and
thought me hypercritical, and could not even see that automatic
sprinklers would be of use in such a concealed storage space.

In Chicago, within a few months after the appalling disaster
at the Iroquois Theater, the aldermen rescinded the rule calling
for automatic sprinklers over the stages and rigging lofts * of the
theaters because the managers believed they " wouldn't do any
good," and "might start a panic should one happen to open prema-
turely. " Every factory manager or mill engineer in this audience
will admit the absurdity of such a statement.

In Boston, the law still accepts the non-automatic sprinkler
pipe to be opened by hand, a device which has now been almost
totally discarded in factory fire protection in favor of the
automatic.

Most dangerous of all, I have found behind the scenes and in
the mechanics' rooms a lack of the scrupulous neatness and order
that characterizes a modern, well-organized factory; have found
a multitude of dark, concealed spaces used as catch-alls, and an
apparent lack of appreciation by owner and architect that a flood
of daylight in storerooms, workrooms and dressing-rooms is the
~best of all safeguards^ by making dirt, disorder and dangerous
rubbish conspicuous. While there are notable exceptions, the
atmosphere of the theater is largely of show and tinsel, and this
contributes to the less thoroughgoing standards of neatness and
completeness than in the factory.

We cannot leave it to the underwriter to make the theater safe
against fire. The able president of one of the largest insurance
companies has said to me, u As an individual, I would be very glad
to see the theaters safe for the public which patronizes them, but

* They are insisted on in the mechanics' rooms, and in other places far less
dangerous to the audience.



10



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.



as an underwriter 1 charge for the hazard as I find it> and need
not care particularly whether the rate is one per cent, or five
per cent." He tells me, too, that on the whole the theater class
at current rates is profitable underwriting.

We cannot leave it with the framing of a good building law.
The same underwriter also said to me, " The City New York
has a pretty good building law, yet the city is full of theaters
that are unsafe, some of them constructed since the building law
went into effect. " The Chicago Building Law required automatic
sprinklers over the stage; until after the Iroquois, not one had
ever been pub in. Then, in the effort to perfect the enforcement
of the law, they cut out its requirement for sprinklers over the
stage !

How can we transfer the care and the precautions of the modern
factory to the modern theater ? How can we bring the manager,
the architect, and the official guardians of public safety the fire
chiefs and the public inspectors of buildings to understand and
introduce the well-proved safeguards, and to be critical about that
perfection of detail on which safety depends ? How can we bring
the public to demand these things ?

Our fellow-member, Mr. Gerhard, presented some of these
matters admirably some years ago in a series of popular talks
which he recast into a most useful and suggestive little book
on Theater Fires.

A German engineer, Herr August Foelsch, of Hamburg and
Vienna, began in 1869 to collect statistics of theater fires, and
up to the time of his death had collected records of over 500.
This list has been extended by Mr. E. O. Sachs, a London
architect, until it contains some account of 1,000 theater fires that
have happened in various parts of the world within about 100
years. The American engineer, Hexamer, has also added useful
contributions to this record. These figures are impressive, but
they teach far less than a full study of a few of the notable
examples.

The Example of the Iroquois.

I first became actively interested in this question by the burning
of the Iroquois Theater at Chicago a little less than two years ago.
A prominent manufacturer, two of whose little nieces were among
the nearly 600 people that perished, wired me to come over to
Chicago and investigate; in a noble spirit he said, not for the



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATEES. 11

purpose of fixing the blame, but to help us find out how such
fearful disasters can be prevented.

I examined the structure before any of the wreckage had been
moved, listened to evidence before the coroner's inquest, coun-
seled with the mayor and committee of the Board of Aldermen,
questioned eye-witnesses, visited Chicago repeatedly, and for
several months devoted to this study all of the time that I could
get release from business, and inspected many other theaters in
the effort to reach a clearer understanding of their special hazards.

This fire at the Iroquois Theater occurred at a Wednesday
afternoon matinee, in the midst of the holiday season, when
the theatre was crowded, largely with pleasure parties of women
and children.

A spectacular play was being given; the amount of scenery
was uncommonly large; the fire was caused by a spark from a
portable electric arc light, known as " spot light " used to throw
a strong light on a special group which set fire to one of the
draperies. The fire spread in the hanging sheets of scenery with
great rapidity and it is probable that in from one to two minutes
the great mass of scenery on the stage was in flames. Meanwhile
an unsuccessful attempt was made to lower the asbestos curtain
the leading comedian came forward and urged the audience to
keep their seats. A door, opened by the escaping actors, let a
great rush of air inward this together with the expansion of the
air in the top of the stage space by the heat drove the flames out
under the proscenium arch into the upper part of the auditorium.
Here was instant discovery cool, prompt action by the theater
staff. There was, perhaps, a momentary delay in sounding the
public fire alarm, but with admirable promptness the chief of the
public Fire Department and an efficient force of firemen were on
the ground within little more than five minutes from the first
alarm we can never hope for prompter or better service from
a public fire department but even by that short time most of
the victims had already become suffocated.

Some of the cooler headed, who followed the maxim for safety,
" Remain in your seat and avoid crushing at the exit," were suffo-
cated in 'the gallery where they sat.

Out of an audience of about 1,830, there were fiBl killed, or 32
per cent., and it is said about 250 more were injured.

Of those killed, about 400 occupied the gallery, or 70 per cent, of
those in the gallery perished; and about 125 occupied the balcony,



12 ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.

or 30 per cent, of those in the balcony perished. Of those who
occupied the floor not more than 7 were killed, and most of these
deaths, it is said, were caused by persons jumping from the gallery.

Suffocation was the main cause of death. The underwriters'
loss was small as theater fires go.

What has been called the irony of fate is found in the fact that
the scene of this appalling disaster was the newest of Chicago's
theaters, a building of fireproof construction that justified the
name so far as the building itself was concerned a theater that
structurally, perhaps, had no superior in this country or in the
world. Little except scenery, decorations and upholstery was
damaged by the fierce fire.

It is true that there had been shameful neglect in important
details of fitting up, that fire hose on the stage had been delayed,
and that fire pails and soda-water fire-extinguishers were absent,
and that the ventilating skylights over the stage were blocked so
they could not slide open, and that exits were poorly marked; but
I have come to believe that had these all been in the condition
commonly found in American theaters, the result of this fire might
have still been appalling, and it is because I am sure the great
lessons of this and the other great theater catastrophes have not
been properly heeded that I speak on this topic to-night.

The great lesson of the Iroquois centers around the sudden out-
break, the rapid progress of the fire over the stage, and the fact
that most of the deaths occurred within five minutes of the first
flame; that death came to nearly all of those who had seats in the
gallery, while nearly all of those on the floor escaped.

The great lesson of the Iroquois fire was only a repetition of a
lesson that has been given several times before and each time for-
gotten.

The recurring formula is:

(1) A stage crowded with scenery.

(2) The sudden spread of the flames over this scenery.

(3) The opening of a door in the rear of the stage, an

inrush of air.

(4) Scant smoke vents over the stage, an outburst of

smoke under the proscenium arch.

(5) Death to those in the galleries.

In 1881, at the Ring Theater disaster in Yienna, with about
1800 in the audience, careless lighting ignited a " hanging border;"



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS. 13

a large door in the rear of stage was opened, letting in a blast of
air that drove the smoke through the proscenium arch ; the iron
curtain could not be lowered; special exit doors were found
locked; 450 were killed, mostly in the upper gallery.

In 1887, at Exeter, England, fire caught on a stage crowded
with scenery. Within about five minutes from the outbreak of
the fire, 200 were killed, mostly in the upper gallery.

In 1876. at Con way's Theater, Brooklyn, N. Y., the stage was
crowded with scenery; a border caught fire; the blast of suf-
focating smoke was increased by the opening of large doors in
the rear of stage ; about 300 were killed, all in the upper gallery.

Note the suddenness, the suffocation, and that the fatalities are
nearly all in the galleries and that these old descriptions will each
tell the story of the Iroquois.

In 1903, at the Iroquois Theater, Chicago, the stage was crowded
with scenery. A piece of hanging scenery was set on fire by an
electric light. A door at the rear of stage was opened, increasing
the blast of suffocating smoke sent into the auditorium. Within
from five to ten minutes about 580 were killed, mostly in the
upper gallery. Substantially, all of those who had seats on the
floor got out alive. Out of about 900 who were in the gallery
and the balcony only about 300 got out alive.

The obvious suggestion might be, make the scenery incom-
bustible, and the popular belief taken in from old text-books is
that this is a simple matter. Of its difficulties and uncertainties,
we will speak later. Suffice it for the moment to say that not-
withstanding the paternal care with which the government in
England and on the Continent looks after all matters of public
safety, and notwithstanding the many recipes in French and
English publications for making fabrics incombustible, none of
these foreign governments, so far as I can learn, specify that
scenery shall be subjected to any process of flame-proofing.

We may make scenery less easily inflammable, so that a match
or an electric spark will not ignite the canvas or gauze, but the
eificient fire-proofing of scenery, so that it will not all burn up if a
fire once gets well started on the stage, is simply impracticable. Of
all this we will speak later.

The scenery which burned so rapidly at the Iroquois was all
made in England, and was first used under the supervision of
English law, in the Drury Lane Theater, in London.



14 ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.

We will in briefest manner possible discuss a few of the chief
features of the theater risk and means for meeting them.

The Fuel.

The amount of combustible material on the stage in a great
spectacular piece is surprisingly large. On the Iroquois stage at
the time of the fire there was more than ten thousand square
yards of canvas, or two and one-half acres, and in addition about




FIG. 1. A. TYPICAL VIEW OVER A THEATER STAGE, ABOVE THE LEVEL OF THE
PROSCENIUM ARCH, SHOWING THE CANVAS SCENERY, THE ROPES BY WHICH
IT is RAISED AND LOWERED, AND THE " PIN-RAIL" ON WHICH THESE ROPES
ARE FASTENED.

three thousand square yards, or half an acre, of gauze. To hang
this required nearly eleven miles in length of f-inch manila rope,
and in the frames, battens, braces, profiles and set pieces, the
stage carpenter of the Iroquois tells me, after making careful esti-
mate, that there was about eight thousand square feet of white
pine lumber. The total weight of this fuel was more than ten
tons, all dry as tinder, and all set or hung in a way to give the
quickest possible exposure and spread to the flames.

Figs. 1 and 2 will give some idea of how this is hung.



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.



15



The paints used by the scene painter are not dangerous. They
are almost entirely mineral substances put on with water and
glue, and they tend to make the fabric a little less readily com-
bustible.

It is very rare that so much scenery is found upon a stage; but if,
as is more common, it were only one-fourth part as much as at
the Iroquois, it is plain that the fuel supply is sufficient to send
out an enormous volume of suffocating gas. Indeed, I have com-




FIG. 2. ANOTHER TYPICAL "HANGING-LOFT" OVER A THEATER STAGE. NOTE
HOW THE NECESSARY ARRANGEMENT OF THE SHEETS OF CANVAS FAVORS
RAPID BURNING.

puted that merely the quick burning of this one hundred and
sixty pounds of gauze that hung over the Iroquois stage would
heat a volume of air equal to that contained in the large space
of the hanging loft above the level of the proscenium arch to
1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

There is good testimony to the effect that in the Iroquois fire
only about two minutes' time elapsed after the first spark until
all the upper scenery was in flames. Only from three to four
minutes' time elapsed before the large space of the hanging loft
was so filled with fire that the flames and smoke rolled out be-



16



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS.



neath the proscenium arch into the top of the auditorium ; inside
of five minutes from the first spark came suffocation and death.

The foremost problem of safeguarding life in theaters is to give
prompt and certain vent to this smoke and suffocating gas else-
where than through the proscenium arch.

CONCERNING THE SMOKE VENTS.

The ordinary construction, with a high spacious chamber for
the hanging loft above the level of the proscenium arch, is such



\




liKl.tl



Gridiron

"



,2d-Fly Gallery



j-M-rij Gallery V



A*




T



,Ll



FIG. 3.



that it is a simple matter structurally to keep this fire and smoke out
of the auditorium, and no matter how great the mass of flaming
scenery, a smoke vent of one-eighth or one-tenth the area of the
stage, if instantly opened, would probably have saved all of this
terrible suffocation at Chicago, at Exeter, at Brooklyn and at
Vienna. This remedy is so simple, so sure and so cheap that it
is a crime not to apply it.

A thoroughly good automatic smoke vent will do more for the



ON THE SAFEGUARDING OF LIFE IN THEATERS. 17

safety of the public than all of the remaining provisions of
the most elaborate building law.

As yet, not one theater in ten has it!

Fig. 3 shows a cross section of the Iroquois through auditorium
and stage. The form is typical and about the same in all first-
class theaters. To one who has not been behind the scenes and
climbed up to the gridiron, the surprising thing is the great
head room, commonly seventy feet from stage to gridiron and
eighty or sometimes ninety feet from floor to roof, and necessarily
more than double the height of the proscenium arch, into which
are hoisted the great sheets of canvas on which the scenes are
painted.

The conditions are plainly similar to that of the fireplace in our
living room, magnified ten or twenty diameters. Note how ad-
mirably the high space over the stage, screened by the arch, is
adapted to give the best of chimney draft, and not give us a


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Online LibraryJohn Ripley FreemanOn the safeguarding of life in theaters; being a study from the standpoint of an engineer → online text (page 1 of 8)