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

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

Chapter 3
Iroquois Theatre Fire, December 30, 1903

Duane P. Schultz, in his often-cited 1964 book Panic Behavior: Discussion and Readings, stated that the huge death tolls at the Iroquois Theatre Fire and at the Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire were due primarily to panic, not the fire. He concluded: "In both cases [ Iroquois Theatre Fire and Cocoanut Grove Night Club Fire] the fire itself was brought quickly under control. It was the nonadaptive behavior which caused the majority of the deaths" ( Schultz, 1964, p. 10).

We believe Schultz's view of these two events is not accurate. As you shall see in this and the following chapter, in both cases the fires were horrendous. The behavior of those trying to escape alive did affect the efficiency of the egress, but their behavior did not cause the majority of the deaths.

The Iroquois Theatre opened on November 23, 1903, in downtown Chicago. It was billed as the "most perfect theater in America" and as "absolutely fireproof." This attractive addition to the theater scene in Chicago had seats for over 1,700 people, the largest seating capacity of any theater in the city.

The main, south, entrance had five double-door openings, each 5 feet wide (see a on Figure 1). Beyond the entrance doors was a large vestibule. On the west end of the vestibule were the ticket offices, and on the east end, just inside the entrance doors, was a stairway leading to the theater office, over the vestibule on the balcony floor above.

Proceeding into the theater, you crossed the 18-foot vestibule and then passed through one of three door openings (see b on Figure 1). Each of these three openings was 7 feet wide, and each contained one single door wing and one doublefolding door wing. You were now in the Grand Stair Hall (see Photograph 1). To your left and right were the start of two 8-foot-wide stairways leading to the floor above, the balcony floor. Across the open Grand Stair Hall were the entrances to the parquet floor (usually called the orchestra floor today). There were three door openings (see c on Figure 1) identical to the 7-foot-wide, single door-double folding door openings at the opposite end of the hall.

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