March 3, 2011
Flaming drapes at the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Indiana on 9 Feb 2011. Unofficial reports indicate that the SL Main Act Curtain (pictured) caught fire when a lighting instrument was knocked over and contacted the curtain. Fortunately, no one was hurt—evacuation of the all audience members occurred safely and automatic sprinklers put out the fire. Cell phone videos taken by audience members are here and here.
Any theatre fire immediately brings to mind the Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre Fire of Dec 30, 1903. Fire broke out at the end of a packed performance of Mr. Blue Beard with some 2000 audience members and 400 actors and stagehands backstage. Here, too, a faulty lighting instrument ignited a drape some 15 ft above the stage, but this time it and throughout a tightly packed stagehouse of painted drops and curtains. Within 8 minutes of the first ignition of the drop, over 600 would die and 250 would be left injured in just 8 minutes.
Here’s a first-hand account of the Iriquois Theatre Fire vividly described by an actor Eddie Foy, who was backstage when the fire broke out. A Tragedy Remembered: The Iroquois Theatre Fire
The Chicago Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 was a signature tragedy that has ever since informed the writing and implementation of the model life safety and building codes in the US and throughout the world as they apply to public assembly spaces, primarily because of the huge loss of life that resulted. Every fire inspector in the US inspecting a theatre has the lessons learned fir the Iroquois Theatre Fire in the back of their mind as they perform routine safety inspections. Just some of the Perfect Storm of factors that contributed to the development of the fire and great loss of life were: flammable drops and drapes, faulty electrical lights, no sprinklers over the stage, locked and/or poorly marked exits, inadequate exits in the balconies, an inoperable fire curtain, blocked smoke ventilators, an oxygen-hungry fire leaping out the proscenium into the audience, no fire alarm box, an audience reassured instead of evacuated . . . The list goes on.
Thanks to the lessons learned from the Iroquois Theatre Fire, there were sprinklers installed in the Star Plaza Theatre that were able to put the fire out and give the audience time enough to exit safely without injury. However, several other links in the life safety chain obviously failed—the drapes were not adequately flame resistant to keep the initial ignition from spreading up the drapes and a rehearsed safety plan did not force the audience to exit more quickly (as evidenced by the cell phone videographers who hung around to take pictures of the fire. ) I’ll talk more about those issues in a later post.
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