Firefighters at the Iroquois
Theater tried using nets below the fire escapes in
Couch place but there was so much dark smoke that
the jumpers couldn't see the net and the firemen
couldn't see the jumpers. Fire fighters would
also have been tripping over bodies of already
The illustration below is from an interesting book on fire
fighting in the early 1900s,
Fighting a Fire by
Thomas T. Hill.
Couch Place was only
wide and flanked by six-story buildings on the north
and south sides. The
smoke would have stuck around,
waiting for east-west wind gusts to happen along.
Sunset was at 4:30 and would have soon dropped
behind buildings facing Dearborn street.
Browder Life Net
Thomas F. Browder patented
the Browder Life Net in 1887. I’ve been unable to
find statistics one way or the other but it sounds
as though almost as many people died from jumping
into one of these as survived. In the years prior to
100-ft. aerial ladders, however, for people trapped
in burning buildings, a life net was better than
Unfortunately, fire nets were only marginally safe with
two- to six- story buildings and even at that height range
people sometimes landed on and injured firefighters,
or hit something else on the way down, such as light
fixtures, fire escapes or awnings. And some did
foolish things – like throwing possessions into the
net, then jumping on top of them. Or jumping in
groups, falling on one another and creating such a
heavy load that rescuers lost hold of the net. By the 1970s life nets were on their way out
and today are mostly the stuff of museums.
Probably taken the morning of December 31, 1903, this
shot taken from the east end of Couch Place toward the west end that let out
onto Dearborn St., gives a better idea of how confined the alley was. At sunset
and with dark smoke pouring from windows and doors it would have been dark
indeed. The dark silhouetted object in the distance between the buildings
is a fire pumper sucking water from the basement at the Iroquois.