Understanding the fire was never a matter of truth and falsehood. Hundreds of onlookers recalled different, sometimes conflicting stories about the frenzy at the site. Predispositions Every recounting of the past fits reshaped pieces into altered puzzles. toward particular kinds of stories shaped what witnesses saw and reporters recorded. To read accounts of the fire is partly to be lost in an ocean of multiplying possibilities. One day Fritz Hirter, the Janitor, was a reckless villain. The next he was a sympathetic victim and an arsonist set the blaze. On still another day, a schoolgirl reported seeing a mysterious man meddling with the furnace in the basement. Girls smoking in a closet near volatile cleaning supplies also became a story of the fire’s origin. The doors to the Collinwood school opened out, but newspaper accounts commonly claimed that children were pinned against inward swinging doors. Some people who escaped the building swore that inner doors by the rearOn March fifth, the day after the fire, The Cleveland Leader‘s front page blamed an unknown arsonist. entrance were locked or only partially open, causing the deadly jam at the exit. Others testified that the doors had been fully opened. Almost everyone agreed that the narrow vestibule before the rear exit played a role in the tragedy, but some reports insisted that if only students had remained calm, many more would have escaped.
Despite our day-to-day reliance on memory and the dependency of our justice system on eyewitness testimony, psychological studies highlight the instability of human recollections. Memory functions nothing like a camera recording data for perfectly reliable playback. Instead, people see according to their predispositions and piece together ever-changing fragments of the past with each retelling. Memory shifts and events in the present change it. Every recounting of the past fits reshaped pieces into altered puzzles.
The Collinwood fire was a one-thousand-piece jigsaw of irresponsibility and good intentions, of racial prejudice and generosity, of a fractured community that also shared its devastation. On March sixth, two days after the fire, the Leader‘s front page blamed hot boilers and suggested that the janitor, Fritz Hirter, was at fault. Newspapers and photographs froze recollections in print, giving them the aura of mass-circulated truth, only to alter that “reality” in the next edition. A coroner’s inquest convened within days of the disaster to settle crucial questions, to define and give closure to the event. Coroner T. A. Burke swore to bring satisfaction: “Someone is responsible for this fire and should be held [accountable],” he said on March 10. Burke’s final report is now lost, but after hearing just two days of testimony, he refused utterly to fix the blame on any individuals: “Someone was to blame,” said the Coroner, “but just who I am not prepared to say.” The fault lay in “conditions” at the school. A hot pipe had ignited a wooden beam and the construction, though up to official standards, did not allow for rapid evacuation after the children “panicked.”
In retrospect, Burke’s hasty inquiry appears to be very far from conclusive, and survivors found the whole proceeding appallingly lax. While major newspapers tended to accept the tragedy as an “accident,” the families of victims led outraged campaigns insisting that somebody or something (they never said who or what) had to be at fault. A group of 100 bereaved parents, demanding a more thorough investigation, swore to seek satisfaction from the state legislature and even the President. At their meeting to protest and plan for action, The Plain Dealer saw many “foreign women with sad faces,” sharing their sorrow in “broken German.” Another report described “mothers and fathers, with choking voices, [retelling] in four languages the story of the disaster.” One father captured the burning helplessness of the parents’ shared loss: “The school board is not to blame, they tell us. The janitor is not to blame, the inspectors are not to blame. In the name of high heaven, who is to blame for the slaughter of our 175 children?”
He would never get an answer. A historical marker placed at the site in 2003 memorializes the fire as a tragedy of “unknown origin.”