When it comes to fire safety, we seem to learn slowly. Sometimes, we have to be hit over the head before we "get it"; sometimes we have to be hit over the head repeatedly.
In 1946 we were getting pummeled.
Hotel fires had long plagued American cities, becoming more treacherous as the skyscraper pushed the height of the buildings past the old limits. In 1934 a fire at the Hotel Kerns in Lansing, Michigan claimed the lives of 34 people including seven state legislators. 1938 saw 35 people killed in the unfortunately-named Terminal Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. Fifty-five died in a fire at the Gulf Hotel in Houston, Texas in 1943. Numerous smaller fires throughout th period claimed death tolls of a dozen or less.
The LaSalle Hotel
The LaSalle Hotel, Chicago, Illinois
In the first decades of the twentieth century a new breed of top-tier hoteliers catered to both upper class clientèle and an emergent and newly prosperous middle class seeking luxurious accommodations in the cities. After an interruption by the Great Depression and the second World War, the upscale hotels were, in 1946, prepared to resume their golden age.
...the LaSalle was representative of a new style of hotel management adopted by most large, new urban hotels during the first decades of the 1900s. Hotels like the LaSalle, such as Chicago's Blackstone, Stevens, Palmer House, and Morrison, helped revolutionize the hotel industry during the period. Catering to travellers' highest expectations, big-city hotels offered spacious rooms, standardized accomodations, stately public areas, and a wide range of service amenities, including bell-hops, barber shops, full-service restaurants, and top-notch evening entertainment.
Jazz Age Chicago - Hotel LaSalle
A banquet room at the LaSalle Hotel
The LaSalle Hotel, opened in 1908 at the height of a luxury hotel boom, was called "the largest, safest, and most modern hotel west of New York City." In its heyday, society divas held court in the hotel's Blue Fountain Room; the Illinois Republican Party maintained its headquarters there for many years. President William Howard Taft had once turned its third-floor presidential suite into an ex-officio White House during an extended visit to the city. It was a highly desirable destination for those who wanted to enjoy the lavish accommodations of the luxury hotels.
The new hotels also attracted a segment of the population absent from the businessmen's hotels of the nineteenth century -- women. With the suffrage movement, wives and independent women joined the men enjoying the new luxury hotels. And with the end of the school year, hotels like the La Salle welcomed an influx of families bringing their children on excursions to the city.
On the night of June 5-6, 1946, with nearly all of the hotel's one-thousand rooms occupied...
...[a] few night owls were nursing drinks inside the LaSalle's ground floor Silver Grill Cocktail Lounge when at around 12:20 A.M. someone smelled wood burning. Seconds later smoke and a little flame shot up from beneath the paneling along the lounge's south wall. Rather than notify the fire department, an ex-marine and several hotel employees tried to extinguish what they thought was a small fire by squirting a bottle of seltzer at water at it and throwing sand. But when a large sheet of fire burst through the wall and across the combustible ceiling, that miscalculation became apparent, and the fate of the LaSalle was sealed.
David Cowan, Great Chicago fires: historic blazes that shaped a city
[Note: other sources say the fire started in an elevator pit, possibly from a carelessly-disposed cigarette.]
As we have seen in two other major fires we have studied here, the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire and the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire, how people react in the first minutes of a fire are critical. Both fires did most of their damage in the first fifteen minutes; failure of people to recognize the urgency of the situation contributed to increased death tolls in both instances.
And yet, because of hotel policies dictating who was authorized to call in a fire alarm, the fire that had been first discovered at 12:20a.m. was not reported to the fire department until 12:35a.m., a full fifteen minutes after it was discovered.
The lobby of the LaSalle Hotel
The lavish, highly-varnished, walnut-veneer paneling that graced the hotel's lobby, and the flammable acoustic ceiling tiles, hollow pockets in walls and ceilings, along with combustible rugs and furniture in the lobby aided the spread of the fire. The combustible materials used in the lounge where the fire started did not meet even the fire code in effect in 1934 when the lounge was constructed. Numerous openings from the lobby gave the fire an easy route to the mezzanine level. At the mezzanine level, a previously-enclosed entry to the main stairwell running the full 22-story height of the hotel had been opened up in remodeling for aesthetic purposes, causing it to fill with smoke as soon as the fire broke out and rendered it impassable. The lack of a sprinkler system meant there was nothing to impede the fire's progress. The fire spread so quickly that two cashiers on the far end of the lobby who paused in their flight to gather valuables were burned to death.
A fire of unknown (probably electrical) origin started behind a seat cushion in the ground-floor lounge just after midnight and, with plenty of draft supplied by a ventilator shaft without firestops that ran up twenty-two floors next to the elevator, spread rapidly into the combustible suspended ceiling tiles and walnut-veneer paneling that were the hotel's decorative hallmark. This paneling was later tested and found to propagate flame at five times the speed of red oak. The hotel's stairs were fire-resistive but were soon impassable due to smoke from the ventilator shaft and the unprotected doorway from the lounge; their uninsulated iron risers eventually failed from the heat.
Rachel Maines, Asbestos and fire: technological trade-offs and the body at risk.
Crowds hampered firefighters at the LaSalle fire.
As the fire raged, crowds of gawkers thronged to the scene, blocking firemen trying to maneuver to fight the fire. The first fire companies on the scene, seeing the enormity of the task ahead of them, immediately sent men rushing to call boxes to send for additional help; in 1946 only three fire units in the entire city of Chicago had two-way radios. It would become one of the reforms in the wake of the fire. Eventually over three hundred firefighters in sixty-one companies were called to the fire.
As the fire spread and thick smoke filled the stairwell, corridors and rooms, asphyxiating many of its victims, some hotel occupants escaped the fire by climbing down makeshift ropes of bedsheets. People trapped on lower floors were helped down ladders by firefighters. The department's largest ladder truck, with an 85-foot reach, was well short of the hotel's upper floors. Still, subsequent investigations revealed early reports of desperate patrons leaping from windows to be largely unfounded. Among numerous bystanders who risked their lives to enter the burning hotel to help lead or carry guests out, two sailors were reported to have rescued twenty-seven people between them. A hotel switchboard operator, staying at her post to try to notify as many sleeping guests as she could -- the hotel did not have an alarm system -- died in the fire.
Others who died in the fire included five teenagers from Iowa on a trip to Chicago as a graduation present; the mayor and three other city officials from Quincy, Illinois, in town to meet with federal housing officials about obtaining funding to provide housing to returning war veterans; fire department battalion chieftain Eugene Freemen, trapped when the mezzanine collapsed on him while he fought the fire in the lobby, was rescued from the rubble but later died of smoke inhalation at the hospital. (David Cowan, Great Chicago fires: historic blazes that shaped a city)
The official death toll in the LaSalle hotel fire was eventually placed at sixty-one guests, staff, and the one firefighter who died as a result of the blaze. Many more were injured. The city began a determined process of re-evaluating its fire code and fire-fighting capabilities. But the nation would get little time for introspection.
The Canfield Hotel
The Canfield Hotel, Dubuque, Iowa
As McElroy later observed, "just three days and four minutes following the holocaust at the LaSalle Hotel in Chicago," on June 9, nineteen more persons were killed in yet another hotel fire, this one in the Canfield in Dubuque, Iowa. Here, too, the combustible fiberboard dropped ceiling added as part of an effort to modernize the appearance of the hotel, spread the fire through the building faster than the guests could get out of it and faster than the firefighters could get to the scene. Burns and asphyxiation on the upper floors were the principal causes of death.
Rachel Maines, Asbestos and fire: technological trade-offs and the body at risk
|"Your Town May Be Next!"
Thirty lives were snatched from the flames of the Canfield Hotel in one of the worst fires in Dubuque's history. To the efficient handling of two Atlas life nets by Dubuque firemen -- thirty souls owe their existence. [...]
Let's remember Dubuque -- and the LaSalle -- there'll be others like them. It's your to be ready
-- 1946 Atlas Life Net advertisement
So many of the conditions that contributed to the disaster in Chicago were repeated in Dubuque. As at the LaSalle, the fire department was not immediately called and valuable time was lost
The flames were discovered by a hotel employee when he opened the door to a small closet in back of the cocktail lounge, which had been closed for the evening and emptied of guests a short time before.
WILLIAM CANFIELD, hotel manager, said the employee ran to him to report the fire.
CANFIELD ran for a fire extinguisher but when he returned the cocktail lounge was ablaze.
He dropped the extinguisher and ran back to the desk.
"It was terrible," he said. "I ran to the clerk at the desk in the lobby and told him to call the fire department and notify the guests that the place was on fire."
GenDisasters: transcription from Waterloo Daily Courier, Iowa, June 10, 1946
Flames again shot up open stairs and engulfed lower floors; smoke filled the upper floors of the four-story original 1891 section of the hotel. The first floor and some upper rooms of an adjacent six-story 1925 annex of "fire-proof" construction was damaged. Guests on the lower floors of the original section, unable to escape the flames, burned to death, as people on the upper floors were asphyxiated by smoke. Most of the more than 100 guests managed to escape -- some by jumping into nets, others by climbing down makeshift ropes of bedsheets, and still others by making their way through smoke-filled corridors to the roof and climbing down a fire escape. Nineteen people lost their lives; another forty were injured, mainly suffering broken bones leaping from windows. Thirty were rescued jumping into nets and 27 were carried down ladders to safety. The state fire marshal termed it the worst hotel fire in Iowa history.
The Baker Hotel
Less than two weeks later, on June 21, 1946, tragedy would again strike a luxury city hotel, this time the Baker Hotel in Dallas, Texas.
The Baker Hotel, Dallas, Texas
The Baker was the home of WFAA radio, the Peacock Terrace, Crystal Ballroom, and the place to play on Texas-OU weekends. Its ballrooms were used for debutantes, movie stars, and society members. The Peacock Terrace Ballroom opened in 1925, and the big name swing bands of the 20s and 30s played for Dallasites. The Idlewild Ball for Debutantes was held annually in the Crystal Ballroom. The Petroleum Club met at the Baker. The Mural Room was the main luncheon site for many. The brownstone building catered to its patrons with style and luxury for 54 years.
University of Texas Library: Baker Hotel Collection (Background)
A gas explosion and fire at the 1925 hotel, at the southeast corner of Commerce and Akard Streets in the heart of downtown Dallas, claimed ten lives (some reports say eleven) and injured over 40. As with the fires in Chicago and Dubuque, thick smoke and gasses quickly filled the corridors on the lower level where the explosion occurred, but, unlike the other fires, did not spread throughout the hotel. Possibly the fact that the explosion occurred in a sub-basement, presumably shut off from view of the hotel's patrons, helped contain the fire.
Fire Chief C. N. PENN called in KINTZ and E. L. MITCHELL of San Antonio, representative of the National Board of Fire Underwriters, to assist in an exhaustive investigation. The explosion was the third major hotel disaster in the nation in 16 days.
The explosion took place shortly before noon in a sub-basement where workmen were installing refrigeration equipment. Ammonia in huge quantities poured out of the basement and into the lobby and rooms.
No guests were known to be killed or injured. The victims were hotel employees or outside workmen. The explosion shook the 18-story, 700-room building and made skyscrapers tremble for blocks around.
Gen Disasters -- Port Arthur News: Dallas, TX Explosion at Baker Hotel, 1946
Following the triple disasters of the LaSalle, Canfield, and Baker in barely two weeks, the shocked nation settled into a period of relative quiet as officials and experts began to study the fires and contemplate courses of action in the calm that followed the devastating epidemic of fire. It was a false calm, however. The nation had no way of knowing that, as 1946 wound down and the holidays approached, the worst hotel fire in United States history lurked just beyond the horizon.
Next week we conclude our look at the hotel fires of 1946 with an account of what remains to this day the worst hotel fire in our nation's history, and the lessons, regulations, and a fundamental shift in national attitudes toward the government's authority to regulate public safety that came about as a result of those fires. We hope you'll join us.
How Regulation came to be: The Hotel Fires of 1946 - Part II
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be: