Lessons from the Collinwood School Fire

March 8, 2008

Ruins of the Collinwood School in Cleveland, Ohio

Pajamadeen is partial to firefighters. We thought we’d look back on their efforts at the Collinwood School fire, 100 years ago this week, which still ranks as the nation’s worst school disaster. Collinwood, since absorbed by Cleveland, was a small town with a population of about 8,000. At around 9:00 a.m. when the school was full of children on Ash Wednesday, March 4, 1908, overheated steam pipes ignited wood joists under the front stairs in the town’s Lake View School. Ultimately, 172 of the school’s 366 pupils, two teachers and one rescuer perished. The results of this fire changed school safety regulations forever.

Real-Photo Postcard Showing More of the Ruins of the Collinwood School Near Cleveland, Ohio

The City of Collinwood bought a common grave at Lake View Cemetery for 19 unclaimed children, whose bodies couldn’t be identified.

Lake View School Before the Fire

The large (for its time) four-story school looked like this before the fire. It had load-bearing masonry outer walls, but most of the building’s floor structure used wooden joists. When the overheated joists caught fire, Lake View’s main staircase — which extended from the front doors all the way up to the third floor and had no fire doors — acted like a chimney, quickly spreading the fire. Oiled wooden floors in halls and classrooms additionally fueled the inferno.

Headstone for the Swanson Children, Who Died in the Collinwood School Fire in March 1908Panic ensued and students were crushed to death as they tried to open door knob latches, or were crushed in stairwell vestibules which were narrower than the outer doors. Others died of smoke inhalation or were burned alive. Some jumped to their deaths from second and third-story windows, as the increasing crowd of parents who had rushed to the building when news of the fire spread, watched, unable to save their children. The Swanson children, Fred, Hulda and Edwin, ages 8 through 13 respectively, were among the students who perished. By the time volunteer firefighters arrived, it was too late. The final casualty of the blaze was the Collinwood community’s independence. With the city unable to guarantee fire safety resources – such as a paid fire department – for its inhabitants, voters approved Collinwood’s annexation into Cleveland less than two years after the blaze.

While it was too late for the Collinwood students, horrified parents across the country demanded school safety inspections which, ultimately, led to stricter fire safety laws. With greater public awareness of fire prevention and safety, building and fire codes were improved nationwide. For example, panic bars replaced regular doorknobs on outward-opening doors, a practice continued to this day. Fire drills were instituted nationwide. When the new Collinwood Memorial school was built, steel framing and other fire-retardant materials were used. Fire-safe stairwells and a central alarm system were installed. The next time you’re in a restaurant, bar or other public gathering place, take a look and you’ll see the crash bars on outward doors. They came with a high price, paid for 100 years ago this month.

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