6. 1000 School Fires

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The Boston Herald, October 19, 1915

fancy-divider-520-50px2-webIn Collinwood’s aftermath, many municipalities and states rushed to inspect schools. Somequotation-marks-gray-3-webSpeaking broadly, the Collinwood tragedy catalyzed only modest changes in school architecture and safety. The enormity of the problem made easy or comprehensive solutions impossible.quotation-marks-gray-closing-3 passed new building codes and undertook renovations. In Cleveland, as in Collinwood, many parents feared to send their children back to school, despite assurances from authorities. Why, after all, should they believe those who allowed the holocaust to occur in the first place? City inspectors did close sections of some buildings and completely condemned one, the Mayflower School.  Constructed in 1854, it served one of Cleveland’s most densely populated and impoverished imimigrant neighborhoods.  The school board also cut new doors in classrooms throughout the city, providing direct access to the outside, and added fire barriers to isolate basements from upper floors.  They tore out vestibules resembling those in Collinwood, which had been intended to facilitate heating the buildings in Winter.  Such modifications made buildings somewhat easier to evacuate but did very little to eliminate the actual outbreak of fire.camera victorian orange transparent

Speaking broadly, the Collinwood tragedy catalyzed only modest changes in school architecture and safety.  The enormity of the problem made easy or comprehensive solutions impossible.   Many cities, including New York, Saint Louis, and even Cleveland, had already turned to building new schools with fireproof materials, but thousands of older buildings presentedmap-of-fire-laws-from-fire-protection-in-public-schools-web-Russel Sage Foundation. Fire Protection in Public Schools, 1913, p. 16. hazards similar to those at Lake View: overcrowding, wooden interiors and stairways, a lack of fire stops at crucial locations, and insufficient or obstructed exits. In mid-sized towns and villages, the problem was even worse. In 1913, five years after the Collinwood disaster, the Russell Sage Foundation noted that ten school buildings per week were lost to fire and that “the Collinwood tragedy . . . could be repeated today in every state in the Union.” The Foundation believed that only two states, Ohio and Massachusetts, had “good” fire laws; the vast majority had no state-wide fire codes at all.  In the same year, the Federal Bureau of Education lamented that “Most communities appear to be still oblivious of the fire risk in schools. . . . Out of 238 school buildings [being completed] in one month of 1913, only 22 are reported with fireproof specifications.  Cities that have just had destructive school fires appear to be building in the same old way.”  In 1939, thirty-one years after the Lake View disaster, the National Fire Protection Agency published 1000 School Fires, a statistical and narrative account of fires that had, with the exception of Collinwood itself, occurred after 1908. “Unfortunately,” wrote the NFPA, “there still are many who have no conception of the seriousness of the fire problem and who must be shown detailed evidence before they can be persuaded to act to safeguard the children of their communities.”dagger2-web

Willam Ittner, the architect of dozens of fire-proof schools in Saint Louis and elsewhere, knew the scale of the problem but lamented that panicked populism and alarmist journalism drove legislatures and school boards to measures that made little sense.  He believed that buildings would, in the long run, improve, but also saw after the Collinwood fire “much hurried, ill-advised and useless expenditure of money in so-called measures of safety.”  Several cities, for example, mandated exterior fire escapes while interior stairways continued to be made of combustible materials and served as potential channels for fire’s rapid travel.  Exits often continued toschool-desks-after-fire-life-al-fenn-1959-webDesks and Chairs in the ruins of Our Lady of the Angels. Life Photo Archive, 1958. be too few in number, partially obstructed, closed, or even locked during school hours. Factories, theaters, and other crowded buildings shared many of the vulnerabilities that made Collinwood and other schools fire hazards. In 1911, the Triangle Factory Fire killed 146 workers. In 1913, the Binghamton Factory fire killed fifty.   In 1915, a fire at St. John’s school in Peabody, Massachusetts killed twenty-two children. Flames rushed up from the basement and terrified students packed a vestibule so tightly that no one could get out.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer heard the echo:   “As in the Collinwood fire . . . the loss of life was caused by a jam at the doors, when the children in their fright to escape from the burning building were thrown down and piled in a heap, blocking the exits.” The familiar hazards and systemic failures of 1908 lingered well into the twentieth century. A full fifty years after the Collinwood tragedy, ninety-five children died at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago. A blaze originating beneath a wooden staircase blocked an exit. The city had exempted the school, an old building, from contemporary fire codes. Interviewed after the disaster, Percy Bugbee, Manager of the National Fire Protection Association, offered his view: “To my mind . . . there are really no new lessons to be learned from this fire.”  Only numerous old ones that went tragically unheeded.dagger2-web
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    Introduction
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    2. Teachers & Students
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    3. Weiler’s Pearls
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    4. School Attendance
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    5. School Architecture
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    6. 1000 School Fires
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    7. Memorials
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    8. Back to Home

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