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The Iroquois Theater blaze

What the Titanic’s sinking represented at sea, the burning of Chicago’s Iroquois Theater marked on land: a supposedly indestructible, up-to-the-minute design-in this case, a theater advertised as “absolutely fireproof”-destroyed with an enormous loss of life. The Iroquois’s owners acted with as much haste and hubris as their Titanic counterparts, installing no firefighting equipment, forgoing fire drills and opening before the sprinkler system was ready. Instead, like so many others, they relied on a single technological magic bullet: an asbestos curtain that would drop down and shield the audience in the (rather common) event of a backstage fire. On Dec. 30, 1903, as vaudeville star Eddie Foy regaled the overcapacity crowd in Mr. Bluebeard, an oil-painted backdrop brushed against a hot calcium-arc spotlight and ignited. The asbestos curtain started dropping on cue but caught on a stage light. Crew and cast opened the stage door to flee, admitting a powerful gust that sent fireballs shooting out over the unshielded audience. Fleeing patrons either found the doors barred or could not turn the newfangled latches on them. Six hundred two died, more than twice the toll of “the Great Chicago Fire” 32 years earlier.

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