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.
A Village Reacts
In the streets near the school there were shouts and screams as the smell of smoke drifted through the air. People literally dropped what they were doing as others rushed by yelling at them that the school was burning. Twenty-four-year-old John Leffel is near the school and when he sees the smoke, he begins running as fast as he can to try and help save the children that were still trapped. The closer he gets to the building; the heat and smoke are so intense his eyes burn and it’s hard to breathe but he keeps running to the buildings rear entrance, hoping that it’s not too late.
“I ran to the school when I saw the smoke. The rear entrance, where the storm doors blocked up the arch, was heaped up with little bodies. I seized the first children I could reach and dragged them out. Some of the children seemed half suffocated. Some were unconscious. I did not stop to look. I seized them by the arms or legs or bodies and tossed them out behind.”
Andrew Dorn and Wallace Upton both live and work in the neighborhood and also run to the school. They each have children trapped inside and run to the back door as well. By the time the men are able to break free a stuck door, children are in a pile at the bottleneck of the bottom of the stairs. They are already starting to burn. Andrew finds his daughter, nine-year-old Gretchen, and tries desperately to pull her from the crush of children, dislocating both of her arms in the process but still cannot free her. He is finally forced to let go as he himself is starting to burn. Wallace manages to rescue eighteen children by pulling them from the heap, despite having second- and third-degree burns covering his arms. Only later does he learn that his own child was among the ones he managed to save.
Previously, we mentioned that the schools fire alarm was basically just an internal alarm. There were no connections to the outside including the Collinwood volunteer fire department. Eleven-year-old Oscar Pahner was one of the fortunate ones to escape the school. Knowing that his friends inside the building are in mortal danger, he runs to the Collinwood fire department to notify them of the situation. However, there is no one at the volunteer station. In fact, several of the members and horses used to pull the pumpers, are miles away working on one of the villages roads.
To say that the Collinwood volunteer fire department resources were inadequate at the time would be an understatement. The department was small, with only twenty volunteer members. Back then, just as it is today, volunteer firefighters had paying full-time jobs and sometimes could not respond to fires. Also, the horses, which presumably were property of the village, were being used for road improvement. There are precious few details on how members of the fire department were initially notified, however later testimony described news of the fire quickly spread through residents of the town and people started rushing towards the school.
The fire departments alarm, which alerted the volunteers to a fire, was rang at 9:45am. Another full twenty minutes passed before firefighters arrived with their horse-drawn wagon mounted pumpers. We could find very few details on the actual equipment that they had available but based on equipment standards of the time along with witness accounts, the gasoline powered pumps barely matched home pressure washers of today.
Also in their haste, they forgot to grab an axe from the station. A mistake that would prove to be deadly. Once on the scene, the fire hoses leaked wildly and the ladders barely reached the second floor. Rescuers were within feet of the children, yet still completely out of reach.
65% of firefighters in the United States are still volunteers. Granted they’re a whole heck of a lot better than what we just heard so I’m not trying to draw any parallels other than to say if you’re listening to this and you’ve only lived in areas that had a fire department that was paid, most of this country still relies on volunteer firefighters. There are just under 700,000 volunteer firefighters in the United States right now. -Tyler
Oscar, the 11 year old boy who ran out of the school, he got burned. He was not unscathed completely. And he had the presence of mind not to just run outside and, and fall to the ground in a panic or whatever. No, he had the presence of mind to run to the fire department. Even though they weren’t there, he knew where the fire department was and he knew that they could help his friends and his fellow students that were in that building. That is another young hero. -Tim
As rescuers are trying to pull children to safety, it quickly becomes apparent what has happened to trap them inside. The students had been trained in fire drills to only use one particular exit. During these drills, they lined up and followed their teachers’ instructions. But on this day, when they started coughing on smoke, and feeling the heat of the flames, panic took hold. They stopped listening to their teachers and started running down the stairs, instead of the fire escape or windows.
The first children to reach the inner doors of both entrances were able to pass through the outside doors and escape quickly. But in the rush to get out, several children tripped or got knocked down and fell in the doorways and were trampled on by the kids behind them also trying to run for safety. The bottleneck point at the bottom of the stairs were small partitioning walls that had been constructed during the 1906 expansion in order to create more room for the increase of students, to hang their heavy winter coats in. Those partitions reduced the width of the inner sets of doors at both entrances.
According to testimony and drawings of the time, the partitions were about two feet wide but they were directly in front of the bottom step. The inner doorways were comprised of two doors that were both only about twenty-eight inches wide. That’s eight inches narrower than the typical front door on any house in the United States today.
With the most intense flames at the front main entrance to the building, and the bottleneck at the rear doors, there was yet another obstacle preventing escape. On the top of the right-side door was a chain-pull bolt. Basically, this is a spring-loaded bolt mounted to the top of the door that when engaged, locks a steel bolt into a strike or hole in the door frame. To release the bolt, you pull a short chain attached to the bottom of the device and it retracts the bolt allowing the door to open.
Fritz Hirter, the schools janitor and custodian, in a heroic effort, makes his way to that door and releases the chain-pull bolt allowing some children a chance at escape and rescue.
A telegraph message was sent to Cleveland saying, “Send help. Collinwood school is burning.” Cleveland fire chief Wallace receives the message and immediately dispatches engine company thirty as well as a truck company to the school under the command of battalion chief Fallon. Their first equipment to arrive on the scene was an engine, a hose cart, and an auxiliary truck.
So this would be sort of like a front runner to automatic mutual aid. When something bad happens in your city, they’re already dispatching the next city. -Jeff
Although the Collinwood fire department members forgot to grab their axe from the station, as well as their ladders being too short; Cleveland firefighters had axes and taller ladders, though the fire had progressed so quickly they were all but useless. The second floor is burned so badly it collapses down into the first floor, and then both fall to the basement in a bed of scorching flames and embers. Some of the Cleveland firefighters set up the ladders that could reach the third floor of the lake view school and actually manage to save several children. However, the yellow pine timbers that held up the fifth grade classrooms finally burned through so much that this floor falls to the basement, killing the remaining students that were trying to be rescued.
Rescue Becomes Recovery
As grieving parents arrived at the scene, firefighters and volunteers began pulling bodies from the rubble. Local ambulances, such as they were at the time, transported victims that were still alive to doctors and hospitals. A make-shift morgue was set up in a railroad shop and held one-hundred-sixty-two bodies within the first five hours. Eight-year-old Glen Barber had realized that he would not escape through the stairs and made the decision to jump from the second story. Although he was alive after jumping, he died from injuries due to the fall just three days later.
Some of the bodies were so badly burned that identification had to be made from articles of clothing by the parents themselves. The mother of Niels and Tommy Thompson could only identify the boys by their shoes. One account shared that a little girl was identified by her parents only after the family dog laid down and curled up beside her body.
Twenty-one bodies were burned beyond recognition and were never identified.
- 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