‘Old Lessons That Tragically Went Unheeded’
This project is a collaboration between the Better Government Association and the Chicago Tribune.
When a Chicago fire makes headlines, politicians often push for new safety standards. Sometimes these reforms made life safer, but frequently the city faltered in the face of opposition and the conditions left in place led to more preventable disasters.
Today, many of the city’s safety requirements still have their roots in these notorious fires, but Chicago politicians’ failures to take stronger action left many residents vulnerable to another fatal blaze.
Here are some key moments:
The Great Chicago Fire
After flames destroyed the city in October 1871, Joseph Medill was elected mayor on a “fireproof” ticket, vowing in his inaugural speech to reverse “the combustible character of the city” with a citywide ban on wooden construction.
But property owners balked at the price tag, and the City Council buckled. The ban on wooden buildings was limited to the Loop and a small surrounding area.
A few years later, another fire tore through Chicago’s South Side, stopping only when it hit the newly built stone buildings within the new fire district. A large insurance association called for all policies to be canceled in Chicago until city leaders adopted stricter fire safety measures, including Medill’s original proposal.
The City Council gave in to the demands, expanding the fire limits to the city’s boundaries at the time. By the end of 1875, the city had restructured its Fire Department, written one of the nation’s first building codes and created the Department of Buildings to enforce the new rules.
The Iroquois Theater
In December 1903, a stage light set a curtain on fire at the Iroquois Theater during an overcrowded matinee. The standing-room-only crowd panicked and raced for exit doors that only opened inward. More than 600 people died in the scramble to escape.
The catastrophe outraged the public, which criticized city leaders for failing to learn their lesson from another theater disaster that killed several people just two years earlier. A child yelled “Fire!” in a crowded theater after he saw smoke emanating from a heating vent. Although there wasn’t any fire, the audience panicked and rushed for the exits, jamming a staircase and small hallways. Five people were trampled to death or died after falling from a balcony. Fifty others were injured.
The Iroquois Theater fire finally prompted changes to the building code, including occupancy limits and a requirement that exit doors swing outward. Municipalities across the world followed suit.
Our Lady of the Angels
In December 1958, three nuns and 92 students died as the result of a fire at Our Lady of the Angels school in Humboldt Park.
A coroner’s inquiry later detailed several fire safety failures. The building — old enough to be exempt from the fire safety standards at the time — lacked enclosed stairways and had no fire sprinklers or smoke detectors. There was only one fire escape.
The National Fire Protection Association blamed authorities “who have failed to recognize their life safety obligations in housing children in structures which are ‘firetraps.’” The president of the association said “there are no new lessons to be learned from this fire; only old lessons that tragically went unheeded.”
After the tragedy, Mayor Richard J. Daley pushed for new rules requiring all schools to be retrofitted with fire sprinklers and alarms directly connected to fire departments, as well as other fire safety upgrades. Many reforms were passed, but the high cost of fire sprinklers prompted City Council members to issue multiple extensions.
For decades afterward, many schools remained without the upgraded protection. The building, no longer a school, where the tragedy occurred was retrofitted with fire sprinklers in 2020.
Cook County Administration Building
In October 2003, a faulty light fixture started a fire on the 12th floor of a 35-story government office building with no sprinklers above ground level.
As employees opened stairway doors to evacuate the building, firefighters opened a door that connected to the same stairwell on the bottom level, creating a chimney effect. Smoke flowed upward toward the evacuating employees, who were trapped after the upper doors automatically locked behind them. Roughly 90 minutes after the first alarm, firefighters found the bodies of six employees in the stairwell.
An investigative report later found Chicago’s building code “essentially endorsed the design flaws that contributed to the fatalities” and said a single sprinkler could have extinguished the fire.
One year later, the City Council approved an ordinance requiring all commercial high-rises be retrofitted with sprinklers. Residential high-rises were given the option to develop less expensive upgrades as long as they passed a life safety evaluation.
The deadline to complete the evaluations was 2006, and all upgrades were to be completed by 2017. After years of deadline extensions, the building department said that as of August 2020, at least 12 high-rise buildings still did not have fire sprinklers and had not passed life safety evaluations.