Relay rescue work in the utility stairwell
Narrow and semi-enclosed, the utility stairwell was
located in the southeast corner of the structure.
of multiple flights of stairs from ground level to
the third floor. The stairs were mostly
obscured from public view because they were designed
to give theater employees and venders private access
to the manager’s office and restrooms. When the grand lobby
was filled with theater goers, a vendor needing to talk to business
manager Tom Noonan, would have entered through a
front door, turned immediately to the right and
ascended the utility stairs leading to the second floor
landing and the doorway into Noonan's office. A
janitor on route to attend to a plugged toilet in a third floor
rest room would not ascend the grand stair case
along side theater guests; he would have toted his plunger and
mop up the utility and used a
pass key at the landing between the 2nd and third
floors. A female attendant in the ladies room
on the third floor would probably have had a pass
pass key opened a locked door leading to a short flight of
stairs up to the third floor promenade. The
door was kept locked to
prevent access to the third floor by street traffic.
Without it, would-be thieves – of seats or pockets
– could easily enter a front door, slip
into the utility stairwell and gain access to the
third floor promenade and auditorium.
Pickpockets were rampant in the Victorian era and
reports from police and fire rescuers of thieves
boldly entering the still smoldering theater to
steal jewelry from dead bodies demonstrate that
street criminals were a very real part of the
Like flood waters
Audience members fleeing the
auditorium ran into any available opening they
thought might be an exit.
Finding the stairs immediately outside the
auditorium exit impassable, a group of twenty to
thirty people from
the third floor balcony ran south on the promenade,
toward the front of the theater.
The theater was dark but for daylight coming through
the windows at the front of the theater so they knew
there were exits in that direction.
All options bad
the end of the promenade was a ladies restroom and a
narrow utility stairwell.* At the bottom of
that flight of stairs was a locked door.
Behind them was darkness and flames;
ahead was safety. Given a few more minutes
they could have opened the door but time wasn't on
immediately turned back and returned to the stairs
leading to the foyer, they might have clambered over
the bodies stacked on those stairs and made their
way to the foyer but they had no way of knowing that
time had run out.
tried to open the locked
door in the utility stairwell, behind them a
fireball, caused by a back draft on the stage,
hurled into the third floor balcony. The
flames, nourished by carpet, drapery, seat
upholstery and clothing, produced smoke that poured
from the auditorium into the promenade, where it was
joined by smoke risen from the two lower floors of
the theater, and was pushed into the utility
Opening the transom over the
locked door, in a futile effort to find a way to
open the door, created a draft that drew more smoke
into the passageway. While the group in the
stairwell coughed and screamed, three men on the
other side of the door struggled to free them.
Through the transom
Amongst the group in the
utility stairwell was
James M. Strong,
his wife, mother and teenaged niece. It was James
smashed the transom glass with his fist, climbed up and
through the transom, probably boosted up by others
in the stairwell, and dropped down onto the landing.
He looked frantically, and in vain, for a pass key,
then ran down the
next flight of stairs to find something with which
to break down the door.
On his way down James met another man on his way up. It
William McMullen, the fellow who
moments before had been
operating the arc lamp that sparked and started the
Seeing the loft above the stage consumed in flames, McMullen had rescued a child from a
first floor box seat, then headed to the third
floor to see to the safety of a friend.**
James requested McMullen's help at the locked door and McMullen
somewhere found a short board. The pair
ran up to the third floor landing and beat at the
James is overcome
William boosted James up with the idea that he would
try to pull people through the transom. By
this time it is probable that the voices on the
other side of the door had gone silent as smoke
poured through the transom. James was overcome
by smoke and dropped back onto the floor next to
McMullen, who helped him stumble outside where a
wagon took him to Michael
Fireman Roche and his axe
McMullen headed back up the stairs and met a fireman
on the second floor landing.
Michael Roche had
just climbed a ladder and broken through a second
floor window at the front of the theater, entering Noonan's office.
brought his axe and chopped out panels in the locked
door so it could be opened. All but a
couple of the people behind the door were dead.
Roche and McMullen pulled some of the bodies into
the third floor Music Room. Figures
passes the baton
McMullen was overcome by smoke
and minor burn injuries. Roche or other firemen carried
him downstairs and over to the medical triage group
at Thompsons diner. Roche went back up to the
third floor balcony.
Easy for you to say..
In writing this summary I am reminded of a nicely delivered line
early in James Cameron’s 1997 film,
Titanic by the late
actress Gloria Stuart,
playing the role of an aged Rose Dawson. After
listening to a young treasure hunter describe the
sinking of the Titanic in a few breezy paragraphs,
the wry centenarian responds, “Yes. Well the reality was a bit