A hard lesson- Collinwood’s school fire in 1908 cost the lives of 175- changing fire safety forever

            One of my favorite things to do in the morning when I am trying to convivence myself to get on the treadmill is to drink coffee and look up what happened today in history.  A lot of things I have no idea ever happened, mostly because the world is very old and I am only a little old, but it is fun to research some of the notables. Today’s stories, in one way or another, change the history of the U.S., fire departments and school safety codes, and it is with this mind that I want to talk about un-known moments in our history:

1908- a school fire in Cleveland, Ohio ended in 165 lives being lost. Now this particular event is reported by http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/this-day-in-history.html as happening on the 5th  of March, but after further research, it actually accrued on the 4th  and it is 174 or 175 lives lost depending on what website you are looking at- but the events and aftermath of this day is important, so we are not going to argue with these websites and we are going to focus on the investigation reports and eye-witness accounts to give us the facts.

Collinwood is located just outside Cleveland, Ohio and in 1901 it had seen a large boom of residents due to railroads and depots because of its central location between Buffalo and Toledo. The increasing growth of immigrants who were looking for jobs in the railroad industry found a safe haven in the area. It was a largely diverse ethnic community that had a majority of Italian, Irish, and Slovenian populations.  The town was booming and it is reported that by 1899 it had a school system, newspaper, numerous churches, and even an amusement park.  So, it was in 1901 that they built a second 4 story school on Collamer Street and by 1907 it had already needed to be updated with four additional rooms near the back of the building because of the increasing number of enrolled students…some reports up to 360 students.

It was 08:45am, 4th of March-Ash Wednesday. It was a typical cold winter day in Ohio and the coal-fired boilers are bursting with life as it heats up the brick pier building…the school bell rings and students and the teachers report to their classrooms to start the days lessons 

Around 09:30a.m., Emma Neibert leaves her classroom on the third floor and heads to the restroom down in the basement when she notices smoke coming from a basement storage closet nestled under the main staircase.  She tells the school janitor, Fritz Hirter who heads to a first-floor classroom and rings a manual bell for the alarm… and then rushes to the east and west side stairs and opens the doors at both exits. The students, having already been through at least one fire drill that year, lined up as they had previously rehearsed and headed out in an orderly evacuation.

Ethel Rose, a kindergartener teacher evacuates all her students using the front door before the flames and smoke blocks the passage.

This is when the story gets really sad….

The fire had started under the main stairs, which was located next to a key exit. It took only moments for the escape path to become completely blocked by the ever-growing flames. Children coming down the winding stairwells from the upstairs classrooms were forced to flee to the rear exit door.  The panic of children fueled by the growing heat and smoke caused one small child to fall and like dominoes, children toppling on top of each other face down until the pile was reportedly six feet high.  Children, realizing that both exists were blocked turned to go back upstairs, but they were stopped by the growing number of children stuck on the stairwells trying to come down. There was nowhere to go.

Laura Bodey, realizing the danger quickly, guided over 3 dozen 5th graders through a second window fire escape outside a classroom managing to save all but eight of her students.

Children were seen attempting to escape by jumping from the upper floor windows, some not surviving the fall.

Outside, the tragedy was witnessed by teachers, parents, neighbors and first responders.  At one point, they were able to break down the rear exit door, but the weight of the six-foot-high tower of children trying to escape death, proved to be unmovable. It is reported that some parents held their child’s hands as they were consumed by the fire, others watched from the yard as their children’s faces appeared in the windows above.  John Krajnyak, a local resident, and two teachers- Grace Fiske and Katherine Weiler also perished that day trying to save the young lives.

Principal Anna Moran provided the following testimony:

When the bell rang, I, and I suppose other teachers, thought it was a regular fire drill. Every child in the school has gone out over and over again from the second floor to the open air in one minute and thirty seconds. You can judge from that how quickly we reached the first floor. When we neared the front door, we saw the flames coming up the basement stairs, and without knowing it, we led those little children into the very face of the fire.

It is not true that the doors opened toward the inside, and they were not locked. The trouble was that only one of the double outer doors was open. The other was fastened with a spring at the top. Before the janitor got it open, the children had wedged themselves into the vestibule, and the others in a panic stumbled and climbed and crowded over them. It was frightful, so near safety.

If I could have turned my line back, they would have had a chance on the third floor, but they kept coming down, and we could not stop them. Men from the outside were trying to pull the children out, but they were crushed so tightly together that no human strength could clear a passageway. Dozens of them died within a foot of absolute safety.

Later, Ethel Rose, the kindergartener teacher told the coroner that she estimated that it was only three minutes from the alarm to the massive pile up at the exit doors, Katherine Gollmar who was a second-floor teacher estimated that it was only two half minutes. 

By early afternoon, the recovery process was in full force and by 4:00p.m., 165 bodies had been brought to the Lake Shore House. A nearby warehouse served as a temporary morgue. Mothers and fathers were rotated through in groups of ten, walking up and down neat rows of small bodies searching for their children.  Most bodies could not be identified except by trinkets that were not destroyed by the flames.  It is written that Nils Thompson, who was the first child to be identified, was recognized because of his belt buckle; Henry Schultz had an identifiable portion of his sweater intact; Irene Davis, a skirt; Russel Newberry still was carrying a watch chain; and Dale Clark still had his new green marble that he had wrapped in a pink handkerchief just that morning before he left for school. Unfortunely, 19 small bodies were never able to be identified.

A majority of the funeral processions were held on Friday, March 6, and others the following week. The 19 unidentified children, along with teachers Grace Fiske and Katherine Weiler, were buried at Lake View Cemetery on Monday, March 9.

If you are like me, you might be wondering where the heck was the fire department!  First and foremost, I would like to remind you that this is 1908 and the concept of having multiple fire trucks that can fly down the freeway at 70m.p.h. has not come to fruition yet.  Second, the first ever full-time paid fire department had just been created in 1853 in Cincinnati, Ohio and a majority of American towns just could not afford the additional expense and so relied on the good nature of local residents to volunteer their time.

At the time of the fire, the 20-member Collinwood volunteer fire department only had a one horse-drawn gas-powered pumper, one hose wagon, and a small ladder truck. On March 4th, the department’s only team of horses was dragging a road scraper over a dirt road more than a mile away. This delayed firefighters significantly, and by the time they arrived at the scene with their equipment, the school was fully ablaze and the victims beyond rescue.

At 10:16a.m, the city of Cleveland received word about the fire and they arrived on scene by 10:50a.m. with three additional vehicles. However, by the time they arrived- there was nothing left to do.  All that remained was four blackened walls. 

The scene confronting the firefighters was horrific. As Chief Fallon describes it:

Under my supervision, the men worked with shovels for about one hour but found this method very slow and rather difficult, as up to this time we had got about 10 bodies, owing to the entangled masses of burned bodies, and as I wished to extricate the bodies without any mutilating, I then decided to float the bodies by putting a large stream of water under each of them, therefore creating pressure which proved satisfactory. The bodies floated around like beef in a vat, after this our work was easy. We were hampered some on account of the parents of the dead children who were clamoring to get a glimpse of these little darlings as they were taken from the ruins of the building to stretchers to ambulances.

According to a historical paper that I found on-line entitled Collinwood’s Call to Action: The Collinwood School Fire Tragedy and its impact on Fire Safety by Ehren Collins- As the investigation into the fire progressed, the building itself became a prime suspect for the heavy death toll. The school was of simple design, made entirely of wood except for its brick façade.

‘During the fire, the brick masonry acted as a chimney, funneling the flames into the upper levels where the wooden interior disintegrated quickly. The building had three main exits: two ground level exits facing east and west and a fire escape snaking down the north side. During fire drills held three times a year, the east exit was designated as the primary exit and the fire escape was not used. As trained, the majority of the students rushed for the east exit during the fire, only to find their path blocked by flames. Consequently, the mass of panicked students bolted to the rear door. The original rear exit was approximately 10’4” wide. However, a vestibule used as a cloak room had recently been added, reducing the exit width to 5’3”.

Though the janitor opened both pairs of doors at the onset of the fire, one of the rear doors became closed in the confusion, funneling the children through a space two and half feet wide. Once the exit had become completely blocked by the pile, the only remaining exit was the exterior fire escape. Ending six feet above the ground, it intimidated many children to retreat back inside from which they never returned. Due to insufficient exits and the building’s predominantly wooden construction, many fates were sealed before the fire even reached them. Though occupancy limits were not calculated at the time, overcrowding may have also contributed to the high death toll.’

The fire at the Lake View School was an international news story, and a higher level of analysis of school systems everywhere resulted, with an upsurge in fire drills and a reexamination of school building design. Perhaps, one of the single greatest advances in modern fire protection is the establishment of the Life Safety Code, first published in 1912 as Exit Drills in Factories, Schools, Department Stores and Theaters. Although the report’s origins are engrained directly with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the need to respond to other disasters such as the Lake View School fire also had a strong influence, as reflected in the original title.

Half a century after the Lake View School fire, another example of a need for change happened on December 1, 1958, at the Our Lady of the Angels school in Chicago, Illinois. This fire had disastrous similarities to the Lake View School fire. It also started under a stairway and trapped the students on the upper floors. When it was over, 92 students and 3 teachers were dead.

This was a sad, sad story.  However, with most of history- we talk about it because there is always a reason why we do things now.  In this case, because of this fire the discussion was started on fire safety and the importance of building codes and a well-run fire department.  Changes come out of despair. Because the Collinwood fire significantly raised public awareness of the need for school fire safety, and the fire at Our Lady of the Angels 50 years later slammed home the reality that action was needed, these fires resulted in sweeping safety improvements, and the statistics speak for themselves. In the decades since both fires, there has not been another school fire in the United States in which 10 or more people have died.

As always friends, I invite you to research the topic more as there was so much more that I could have discussed with you.  Mainly, the use of mass media to portray a horrific scene, investigations made by the unqualified residents that lead to innocent men/women being blamed for situations that they had no control over, and of course the aftermath of such a devastating day and how the community rebuilt. 

(15) Collinwood School Fire – YouTube

CollinsJrPaper.pdf (nhd.org)

Hometest | Collinwood Fire, 1908

The Lake View School Fire (nfpa.org)

Collinwood School Fire | Cleveland Historical

“In Loving Remembrance: Collinwood School Fire”, Cleveland Public Library commemorative booklet accompanying exhibition for the centennial of the Collinwood School fire, Cleveland Public Library, History & Geography Department, 2008

What are your thoughts?

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