Author’s Note: The events we will be discussing occurred one-hundred-fifteen years ago. Many of the details have been lost to history. All attempts at accuracy have been made however, official records are often incomplete and media reports of the day are somewhat unreliable. A list of our source material will be provided at the end of this article.
The School Day Starts
Twenty-six-year-old Grace Fiske had entered the school well before her third grade students began arriving. Grace was born in New York, but later moved with her parents to Collinwood. Her father was a trimmer on a steam ship, and her mother was a housewife. Having become a teacher at age twenty-six is still not uncommon even today, nor is being unmarried and living with your parents. The house at 10522 Orville Avenue was only a few blocks away from the school so the daily walk was easy.
As her students began arriving a little after eight o’clock, there were the usual greetings and grumblings from students as they put away their coats and got their books, papers, and pencils ready. With forty-nine students, the room was completely packed. Over-crowding was a serious issue at Lake View. As we discussed in part one, the significant increase in population in such a short time led to issues throughout the village. Every classroom in the entire building was packed full. Even the third floor gymnasium that had been converted into classrooms was full of students. On that day in March, three-hundred-fifty students packed into a building that had been designed for only about two hundred. This forced teachers and staff to crowd the desks together and cram the kids in tight. Children were typically less than an arms length away from another classmate. This over-crowding also forced architects to build in additional wardrobe spaces in the school during the 1906 expansion. As a result, wardrobe rooms were constructed around the stairways as well.
Also, during the expansion partitions were added at the bottom of the stairs. These partitions contained doors that opened into vestibules between the bottom of the steps and the exterior doors. These doors were not like any that you would ever see today in any commercial or even residential building as they were only twenty-eight inches wide. That’s about eight inches narrower than the front door on your own home. In addition to having narrow doors, students have to make a quick turn or step around the partitions in order to have a clear path to the exit doors.
For a modern-day comparison, imagine leaving a grocery store. Typically, there are two sets of automatic sliding doors to walk in and out of. You are walking out through the doors and are almost out except that the door you are closest to doesn’t quite roll back all the way and you kind of get shoulder checked by it! Well, at Lake View, the doors were certainly not automatic, and the openings from the stairs to exit doors did more than just body check the children trying to escape for their lives.
So last episode I talked about occupant load, or basically the number of people in a building, as well as egress capacity, which is basically how well that building is designed to get those people out of the building. I made the critique that when they added to the school, they essentially increased the occupant load without increasing the egress capacity. But as we just heard, they didn’t just keep the egress capacity the same, they actually decreased it. So now you’ve got more people, less exiting. -Tyler
The Fire Begins
After the 9:30 bell rings and classes start to change, Emma Neibert asks miss Bodey if she can be excused to use the washroom. Located in the basement, Emma walks down the flights of stairs but stops short just as the steps begin descending into the basement. She sees and smells smoke and knows the dangers of fire and what it could mean to everyone. Fritz Hirter, a German immigrant who is the school janitor and maintenance man, is working on one of the boilers at the time and hears Emma’s calls. Seeing the smoke, Fritz rushed to ring the schools fire bell to alert teachers and students to evacuate the building!
Emma ran back up the steps and out the east, main entry door. With amazing clarity of mind, she thinks to hook the door open. While the doors did not have closers like we think of them today, they did have springs that would pull them back shut. She waits outside the building for her friends to start coming through the doors. Meanwhile, Hirter runs to miss Irwin’s classroom in the northeast corner of the first floor to ring the fire bell. This bell only rings within the school itself and could be heard outside only by those in close proximity to the building. It did not alert the Collinwood fire department in any way.
Ruby Irwin, having been alerted to the fire by Fritz running into her classroom to ring the fire bell, leads her first grade students towards the east exit just like they practice in drills. Only half of her students make it out the main entry before the smoke, flames, and heat force them to return to their classroom. By this time the fire is racing through the basement and up the wooden staircases. The brick walls and wooden interior make the school like a huge fireplace, with all the heat and smoke rushing straight up as it would in a chimney.
With the partitions at the bottom of the stairs, just feet from safety outside the building, some of the children tripped and fell in those doorways. Other students ran over top of them but still more tripped and fell on top of the ones already on the floor. Since the younger children were on the first floor and older children on the upper floors, there was no hope for the little ones to get up through the crush of bodies on top of them to escape the smoke and flames surrounding them.
Up on the third floor, Laura Bodey, Emma’s teacher, has only been with the school for five weeks and had not participated in the one fire drill held that year. Her students all line up as they had practiced and head down the stairs to the second floor. But the children start to panic when they can’t go any further due to the smoke and flames racing up the steps, so Laura gets most of them to follow her to the fire escape on the north side of the second floor. Some of her students refused to follow her directions and tried to escape down the west stairway. This refusal to listen would end in their deaths.
The second graders in miss Katherine Weiler’s class on the second floor were singing songs when the alarm sounded. When the kids headed to their practiced exit on at the west stairs, they found a massive wall of students who were trying to escape after the east stairs became blocked. As miss Weiler tried to get her students to the fire escape on the north side of the building, she managed to throw several out of a window to safety before being trampled by terrified students. The west stairs then collapse, sending students and Katherine through the floors to their deaths.
We’ve used the phrase before but it’s like the perfect storm. All these bad things combining, I don’t see how many people could have survived it. -Jeff
Miss Lulu Rowley leads her third graders to the front east stairs but they were already blocked by fire. Seeing that there is a complete jam of children at the back stairs, she orders her kids into Grace Fiske’s room along with miss Irwin and the remainder of her students. Together, they manage to open and break out windows and start throwing children out the six to eight foot drop to the ground. One boy is badly cut and cannot see because of the blood in his eyes so miss Rowley picks him up and carries him to safety outside. Knowing the boy is out of danger, she runs to the rear door but is confronted by the horrible sight of child upon child, upon child stacked like logs in the entrance. Fire and smoke surrounding them.
We were talking just a minute ago about heroes. These teachers were real heroes of the day, trying to save these children. -Tim
Grace Fiske is still in her classroom after miss Irwin manages to escape out the window. As smoke and fire consume the building around them, she still tries to get every child out to safety. Panic sets in and the remaining students trample her in their efforts to flee. As she laid on the floor, injured and bleeding, she still managed to take two small children and wrap them up in her skirts in an attempt to protect them.
“They saw the flames leaping up from the basement. They screamed, broke ranks and ran for the front door. It would not open. The mass turned to the rear door. It would not open and it was shut. Those in front tried to open it but the ones in the rear pushed against them, and the little bodies were crushed to death. Others suffocated. It was too dreadful for words.”
-Miss Anna Moran, principal of the Lake View School
From an upper window,Thomas Thompson managed to crash out and get safely to the ground. When he stood up, he immediately started looking for his seven-year-old brother Niles among the students who were safe outside. Within a couple of minutes, he realized as a brother’s intuition kicked in, that Niles was still inside the building.
Since his father had died some time before this day, Thomas had to step into the role being man of the house. Helping his mother whenever he could, and always taking care of his brother, that same drive carried him against all odds back into the burning building to save Niles. Thomas and Niles Thompson, born to Swedish parents at 405 Collamer Street, just a few doors away from their school, died together.
Less than five minutes has now passed since Emma first saw the smoke in the basement. As people in the village of Collinwood, Ohio started to hear word of the Lake View School on fire, they rushed to the scene. Railroad workers going to help rescue children. Mothers and fathers hoping to find their children safe and unharmed.
Although they began arriving within minutes, their efforts would ultimately be in vain.
- Collinwood School Fire – ClevelandHistorical.org
- Collinwood School Fire – Case Western University
- The Lake View School Fire – DHI
- Remember the Lakeview School Fire (Also Known As Collinwood School Fire) – Minnesota Department of Public Safety
- The Collinwood Tragedy – The Kent State University Press
- 10 Heartbreaking Facts About the Collinwood School Fire – StrangeAgo.com
- Grace Fiske – AGraveConcern.wordpress.com
- Collinwood school fire: 100 years later, an angel still kneels over the children – Cleveland.com