Don't Panic: The Psychology of Emergency Egress and Ingress

By Jerome M. Chertkoff; Russell H. Kushigian | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
Introduction

On Friday, December 27, 1895, the United Oriental and Dramatic Company of Boston was to perform the opera Alexander, in Yiddish, at the Front Street Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. A capacity crowd of about 2,700 people had come to see Alexander. Most of the audience were Jewish immigrants, mainly from Poland and Russia, and their families.

The Front Street Theatre was a large, old building. The main entrances, four in number, were on Front Street. Each entrance had two sliding doors. Inside the lobby, to the left and right, were two staircases ascending to the first and second galleries. The stairways to the first gallery were about 10 to 12 feet wide, and the stairways to the second gallery were about 5 to 6 feet wide. Each staircase had one sharp turn. The inner doors to the auditorium were swinging doors that opened both ways.

The theater was lighted by gas, and there had been recent problems with leaking gas. When the opera Alexander was performed there on Christmas night, the first of two performances, some people became ill from inhaling gas, one person even lost consciousness. During a rehearsal on December 26, the smell of gas was again quite pronounced. The problem was brought to the attention of A. S. Miles, a director and treasurer of the company owning the theater. He had his nephew, William Miles, handle the problem. Although the nephew allegedly had some knowledge of pipe fitting, he was not a plumber. William worked on the gas pipes, mending some leaks and installing some new brackets.

On the night of December 27, 1895, the smell of gas was apparent to many in the theater long before the 8:00 P.M. curtain time. Employees tried to find the source of the leak, but without immediate success. They continued to look.

At 8:00 P.M., the lights were dimmed, and the orchestra began the overture. As the overture was coming to an end, a stagehand named Wil, carrying a lighted candle in order to see in the dimmed theater, was searching for the leak in the first gallery. When the candle came close to the source of the gas leak, either a cracked

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