Fatal school fires remind us of sacrifice, progress

When you visit schools this month, pause for a moment to remember those caught in the Collinwood tragedy

Well, the Firehouse Funnies entry this month will not be funny; in fact, there will be no humor at all in this. You could even say that this is way out of my normal realm, but with Fire Prevention Month upon us, this is a very relevant story.

The other day while doing an online continuing education course, I noted a causal mention of the Collinwood, Ohio school fire. I was curious enough to do a search and was astounded by what I found.

First of all, the Village of Collinwood no longer exists. Collinwood was on the outskirts of Cleveland and was eventually swallowed up the by the growing city.

However, it existed on the brisk Ash Wednesday morning of March 4, 1908. From several accounts, it was between 9 and 9:15 a.m. at the Lakeview Elementary School when fifth grader Emma Neubert noticed a curious site; smoke was coming off the stair risers at the main entrance.

She then saw janitor Fritz Hirter, a father of eight, whom she alerted. Hirter burst into the ground floor classroom of teacher Ruby Irwin and sounded the fire gong with three taps. With that, the largest loss of life at a school fire in U.S. history was underway.

There were around 350 kids in school that morning along with nine teachers. The teachers were all single women in their 20s.

Not a drill
Children in all classrooms donned their coats and hats in a calm demeanor, after all, most thought it was a fire drill. Principal Anna Moran on the second floor was immediately concerned because she hadn’t scheduled a fire drill. When classroom doors opened, hot black smoke was blowing down the hallways.

The school was laid out with two large wood staircases that emptied out at the front door. It very much reminds me of the elementary school I attended. There were no stairway towers and everything was polished and oiled wood; so naturally this place went fast.

There was pile up at the rear exit that turned into a mountain of children trying to get out. The front exits were blocked by flames and there had been no training on using an alternate exit in case of a fire. Teacher Ethel Rose estimated that the rear exits were impassable within three minutes of the alarm; teacher Katherine Golmar put it at two and a half minutes.

Teacher Laura Bodey, who had worked at the school for only five weeks, was on the third floor with a double sized fifth grade class. She had never been through a fire drill. Looking down from the third floor, she saw the pile and reversed her line back to the third floor, opened a window began moving students onto the fire escape. Most of her class survived.

Some parents actually talked to their children who were in the pile before they died. I can’t even begin to imagine this.

The first official person on the scene that day was Police Chief McIlrath who had three children inside the school. He tried to maintain order and assist in the rescues.

No horsepower
There were all kinds of heart breaking stories that day. Nine-year-old Niles Thompson escaped the fire but after a survey of the area realized his brother had not come out. Practicing an early form of risk analysis, he reasoned he was going to risk a lot to save a lot and re-entered the school to look for his brother, Thomas. Both boys died in the fire. 

Police Chief MCIlrath’s son, Hugh, was inside and led a contingent of small children down a fire escape, but the small children were afraid to jump and re-entered the school. Hugh went with them to try to lead them out, but he succumbed to the flames with them.

It is with great pain that I have to report the local lifesavers didn’t make much of a showing that day. The first problem was the street department was using the fire horses to grade a road a considerable distance from the firehouse. 

So they showed up after a long delay and were outgunned immediately. They had one gasoline pump that didn’t generate enough pressure to do any good. They didn’t have a ladder that would reach the second floor.

A call was made to the Cleveland Fire Department; they immediately dispatched help under the direction of Battalion Chief Michael Fallon. Chief Fallon wrote of his arrival that “the building was doomed, nothing remained but four walls.”

In a tremendous show of the fire department’s make-it-work mindset, a great story did arise that day. In downtown Cleveland, the central fire station received a call with an offer of a car. When the car arrived, they determined a life net would be useful at the fire, but the car had a hard top and the net wouldn't fit inside.

Cleveland firefighter John O’Brien placed the net on the roof and ordered the driver to “give her hell.” He rode 8 miles on the roof holding down the life net across bumpy roads.

Sharing blame
Inside the school, three people were still deep in the heat: teacher Grace Fiske, teacher Katherine Wieler and Hirter. Hirter made entry through a window and was working to get students out through windows.

Fiske hung as long as she could before she bailed out a window. She was rushed to a hospital and died three hours later. Wieler’s remains were never found. One account said she was last seen on the second floor with her dress on fire, but was still trying to save children.

When it was all over, 152 children, two teachers and one rescuer died. State fire officials ruled the fire started from a steam pipe in the basement contacting a wood joist.

There seemed to have been a lot of blame to go around. The school district came under fire for cheaping out on the building, installing one fire escape when the architect called for three, and overcrowded classrooms. The town council tabled a motion to upgrade the fire department (wow, even back then).

Sadly, Hirter, who lost three children that day, became a suspect in the fire. Police Chief McIlrath, who was by all accounts a stand up guy and believed in doing his job, learned Hirter’s house was surrounded by a lynch mob.

Chief McIlrath knowing, he was outgunned and outmanned, called for the Cleveland Police Department for assistance. Cleveland Police responded with a dozen officers to form a perimeter around the Hirter house.

Systemic changes
In the end, Hirter was absolved of any wrongdoing. He even returned as a school janitor and worked until he was 70 years old. He died at the ripe old age of 96 and, according to family and friends, rarely if ever spoke of the fire.

This fire, which was eerily similar to the Our Lady of the Angles school fire in Chicago years later, led to sweeping changes in school construction and fire drills all over the U.S., not just in Ohio.

I wonder how many people in Cleveland today who pass the intersection of 152nd and Lucknow Ave. know what happened there. We are only left to wonder what some of these kids would have gone on to become.

We know Hugh McIlrath had great leadership qualities. He might have changed the world. Who knows?

So this October when you visit schools, take a look down those noncombustible hallways, the sprinkler heads, the stair towers and the fire alarm strobe lights and think back to a time when they didn’t exist.

Think about how many lives Fritz Hirter, Grace Fisk, Katherine Wieler and Laura Body saved that day. Remember the loss of Niles Thompson and Hugh McIirath.

I also imagine this had to impact the firefighters who responded that day; don’t forget them.

Enjoy the fall and let me hear from you. 

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