The Collinwood School Fire of March 4, 1908
A Day of Infamy:
This is the story of the Collinwood School Fire of 1908, it was and still remains as the worst school fire in American history. Read to uncover the causes and effects of the fire, witness the community and nation united in a singular cause to end such tragedies, and become apart of today’s history as our nation must address the unsolved issues around gun control and school safety.
It was Ash Wednesday on March 4, 1908, the rain had fallen for several days, and the temperature was brisk at 36 degrees with blue skies and blustery winds blowing in from Lake Erie. Lakeview School in the Village of Collinwood, was located east of Cleveland, Ohio. It was the site of a perilous school fire that changed the way that school buildings were to be constructed, and the way that future fire safety rules were to be written. It is a human story that told of the heroic teachers and of panic- stricken children who perished that day. It was a catastrophic and infamous tragedy that was recorded in the annals of American history as the most devastating school fire of all time. Because, in spite of all the heroic efforts, 172 children and 3 adults were burned alive in this holocaust. The tragic news of the school fire made headlines around the nation and the world. The news reports offered more questions than answers for the families and friends of the lost children. What was the cause of the fire? Why was there such a large number of casualties? How could such an event be prevented in the future? By all accounts it was a day that started out like any other, but would live in the hearts and minds of many people, as a day that lived in infamy.
Sounds of School Bells:
In the news that day were reports of President Theodore Roosevelt‘s seventh year in the White House; Pat Garret who killed “Billy the Kid” was murdered a week earlier in New Mexico, sixteen year old Mary Pickford was making her first silent moving picture; and Edison’s talking machine, including records, cost ten dollars.
Children were scurrying through the muddy sidewalks, covered in puddles from yesterday’s rain, trying to avoid being tardy to school. Many stopped by the small store on the coroner opposite the school for candy, reaching into their pockets for pennies in exchange for Clark Teaberry Gum, King Leo peppermint sticks, NEECO wafers, Brach’s wrapped caramels, pink conversation hearts, and Hershey’s chocolates.
Words of “Amen”:
The mothers hovered in the doorways of their Collinwood homes to see their children off to Lakeview School. They bade farewell with kisses and heartfelt waves goodbye as the children passed–playfully skipping, running and laughing. Most of the children lived within walking distance of the school. The school bell rang at 8:45 a.m. to signal the start of the school day. The repetition of the word–“Amen” echoed through the halls as the children of each classroom finished their opening morning prayers.
A few minutes after the morning school bell rang, little Alice Eichelberger hurried to school, she had lost her sense of the time and was about to be late for school. It was already a few minutes past 9:00 a.m. She reached the school and stared at it for a moment, she feared of being shamed for being tardy. In a moments notice, Alice turned around and ran all the way back home where she remained that day.
While playing with friends in the middle of February, eight year old Harry Parr broke his arm. After the family doctor set the arm, the doctor told the boy’s parents to keep Harry home for three weeks to allow proper healing. Harry, the only boy in the Parr family, pleaded with his mother not to go to school that sunny Wednesday morning. His mother insisted, so he left for classes for the first time in three weeks. Alice and Harry made very different choices that day, yet neither could have known that each choice was a matter of life or death.
The School Built for Disaster:
Approximately at 9:40 a.m., when the janitor, Mr. Hirter was sweeping the basement, he was warned by Emma Neibert, who was thirteen years old, that she saw smoke. Mr. Hirter immediately sounded the fire alarm, as the alarm echoed throughout the hallways and classrooms, he quickly ran to the front and back exits and opened all sets of doors.
On all three floors, the children immediately rose from their seats and formed a double filed line and proceed to exit the building. There was no confusion as order was kept , and as the children responded to the fire alarm as they had practiced so many times in the past. To the children and teachers, it seemed like a normal fire drill, until the flames and smoke began to climb from the basement up the wooden stair case to the front exit door. Georgia yellow pine wood was used in the construction of all the stairways, as a result, the flames devoured the front exit stairs within minutes. The raging fire and smoke threw the orderly fire drill into a panic -stricken nightmare.
Any escape down the front stairs was nearly impossible. In a last second decision, a teacher, Miss Irwin, ordered her students to rush through the front doors which were tangled in flames. Those who obeyed her command escaped to safety. Her judgment saved almost half of her 38 students. She led the remaining children back into one of the smoke filled first floor rooms, where she opened a window, and lowered them to safety. In a leap of desperation, Miss Irwin jumped from the window to save her own life.
Confusion to Chaos:
Since the front exit was blocked and inaccessible to escape, all of the remaining children turned and ran to the back exit. More chaos was created, as all of the school children who were unable to exit through the front door, would clamor in fear to join those trying to escape through the rear exit. The scene was a tangled mass of humanity, as rear exiting classrooms of children were being piled-up in the narrow doorway. There was an avalanche of bodies, screaming, and crying for help. Many were trampled and trapped as the flames were soon going to be upon them, the fallen children mounted on top of one another in a piled mass. The first children who fell were crushed to death and died from suffocation. The others were trapped and still alive, but were packed tightly together in one enormous heap of bodies in the scant passageway trying to escape in vain. The back exit was now a deathtrap. Teachers tried to keep the children from panicking and from piling up on top of one another, but their efforts were fruitless.
Miss Gollmer was able to lead a few of her pupils back into the school and up the stairs to the second floor fire escape where they she and the Principal Miss Moran helped them to make their escape. The two teachers followed them to safety. Only the few that followed the orders of their quick thinking teachers were saved. The only school fire escape stopped six to seven feet from the ground, a distance too great for many children.
Hirter, the Janitor, Recollected:
At the back door exit—where the flames had not yet reached – there was one great heap of humanity—nine bodies high and almost reaching the ceiling—teachers were trying in vain to untangle them before the flames would overcome them. Joining in the effort were neighbors who lived next to the burning school who saw the first sight of smoke and began trying to help from the outside. Mr. Hirter, school janitor, was one of those trying to pull the little bodies to safety. He recollected, “…some of the children seemed to be half-suffocated, and some were unconscious. I did not stop to look. I seized them by the arms or legs and tossed them out behind… the flames were rushing upon us and I knew we had only a few moments left. Many of the children were still piled up in the exit when the heat and smoke drove us back from them.”
The Maddening Crowd:
Finally, the Collinwood Fire Department located within a mile of the school arrived. At the time, it was estimated that the response time was about twenty minutes. There was little they could do with the antiquated horse driven fire wagon and its pumper that had weak hose pressure to douse the flames. In addition, the flames and heat were so fierce that the firemen were unable to enter or even get near the building. As the firemen watched, the school house was now entirely engulfed by raging flames. The crowd of people, mothers, and fathers were gathered around the burning school and were hysterical. They were struggling with the local police who were trying to keep control crowd and prevent many from dashing into the burning building. The crowd became maddening wild with hysteria, as they witnessed helpless children screaming for help– being unable to do a thing for them. For those parents, those crying wails from the children rose above the sound of the burning timber and the crackling flames. The crowd reacted to its eyewitness account of this tragedy by dramatically showing outward feelings of fear and crazed maddness. The crowd’s severe reaction demonstrated its need to express its inner unvoiced and unexpressed pain..
The Children’s Hour:
The time now was 10:30 a.m. The flames had reached the third floor. The first and second floors were completely devoured and were in the process of collapsing into the basement. The cries and screams of the trapped children could no longer be heard. All were lost. Then suddenly, without warning, an elderly gray-haired man dropped to his knees in tears over losing his grandchildren in the burning school. “Oh God, what have we done to deserve this?” the man cried, as he stretched out his arms to heaven. Then the man began to pray. Many other people standing near the praying man fell to the ground on their knees and began to pray along-side the gray-haired man. Others were in so much shock that they could do nothing, they were speechless, and some only mumbling sounds as they called out to their lost loved ones. In that moment, most everyone prayed to almighty God to bless those lost in the fire.
The Dark Aftermath:
By 11:00 a.m. with all hope gone, the ghastly chore of removing and identifying the charred bodies that were lying under the ashes and debris was the job of a few hundred men. A temporary morgue was established, the digging would take hours and the number of children thought to be dead was unknown. A continuous flow of bodies on stretchers wrapped with white sheets were carried from the fire to the morgue for identification. Articles that were found in the pockets of the girl’s dresses and skirts were handkerchiefs, loose coins, and small pieces jewelry such as a penny rings, and bracelets. In the pockets of the boys were found an intact a slingshot, pocket knives, and coins. Many of parents had to identify the remains using these articles since the charred body remains defied description. As a consequence, not all parents were successful at identifying their lost children.
Throughout the world, the tragedy of the fire was read in many newspapers. The newspapers of Cleveland set up a relief fund for the families of the victims. The village of Collinwood had purchased cemetery lots at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, where the unidentified children were to be buried. Plans had been made to erect a monument over the mass burial. The other children were buried at various cemeteries at the choice of their families.
The chosen burial site was that of the famous Lakeview Cemetery where former President James A. Garfield was laid to rest (1881); and John D. Rockefeller, philanthropist, and oil tycoon was later buried (1937).
In the days and weeks following the funerals, the Cleveland newspapers published the pictures of the children who perished in the fire. Even to those who were not parents,they experienced and shared in their sorrow. The published pictures of the fire victims and the burnt out ruin of the school were seen in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, London, and Paris. In places everywhere, fire inspectors rushed to examine their local schools and compared the Collinwood built Lakeview School with their own schools to find reasons for concern.
The Opposing View by the Establishment:
For some authorities the fault was with the victims, the schools were built properly and change was not necessary.
“The authorities in Collinwood thought they had built well, said an editorial in The Normal Instructor, a monthly publication for school teachers. In fact, the Collinwood School resembled “hundreds of other school buildings of the day of which those communities might well be proud.” Many questions were to be asked, “Why did the school structure collapsed on students and burned so rapidly? Unfortunately so many students were jammed against elegantly arched doorways; as the bricks, the beams, the glass, the gables, the hope and the promises rushed downward in a fiery finish of a school day that started with the ordinary ringing of a bell.
It took three years (1911) to complete the inquiry and rebuild a new school with fire prevention as its priority. Social and political change were the necessary forces behind the innovations of fire safety design that was needed to protect future school children from a similar fate. In hindsight, some blamed the children and the janitor for the tragedy, although the majority of the public realized that the system of school construction and fire safety would have to be changed to prevent a future catastrophe.
Power to the People:
The events of this day changed public opinion across the nation, and influenced lawmakers to enactment new laws, i.e., such laws that improved school fire safety while restricting the use of flammable materials in the construction of public schools. The cause of the fire was not determined, although a faulty coal- fed boiler was suspected. Furthermore, the causes behind the rapid acceleration of the fire was two pronged; first the yellow pined floors and hallways varnished with a flammable chemical, and secondly, the many broken windows permitted gusts of wind from Lake Erie to stoke the raging flames with an unlimited supply of oxygen.
Three years later, a safer building was erected on an adjacent lot, after the deadly fire in 1911, and was appropriately named Memorial School with an adjacent garden on the original school site created in memoriam. More recently, the 1911 building has been replaced with a newer building in 2006 of the same name.
In reflection, the issues around school safety have changed over time. Over a century ago, Parents’ were concerned with school fire safety. Today, parents and society have a recurring and ever present danger-the horrific killings of school children with weapons of mass destruction. In retrospect, can a lesson be learned from the story of the Collinwood School Fire? Because, the people solved what appeared to be an insurmountable national problem; with an undying spirit. They demanded that their children would not die in vain. Consequentialy, the representatives of govenment relented and –enacted public polcy for safer schools.
In summary, solving a problem requires defining the problem correctly. Then, using a genuine, collaborative effort to marshall the necessary resources to its end. The silent majority in this country holds the key to voicing the need for gun control; improved mental health programs, a ” red flag” authority to remove weapons from dangerous individuals by law enforcement using judicial due process, and vetted background checks by government agencies that are linked in a single data base at the Federal Bureau of Investigantion