Lessons Learned

The following is my commentary based on my research into the Lakeview School fire of 1908.  It is not annotated because it is an opinion article.  It is the only material on this site that does not contain references.  Therefore, it should be attributed to me as the author and not any other source listed on this site.  I hope I have helped you gain some knowledge about the fire and that it has helped in some way. — JRN

It is hard to imagine any good could come from such a dreadful tragedy as the Lakeview School fire, but it did bring about positive changes.  First and foremost, it caused school boards almost immediately to look at the construction of their schools and to make improvements that would increase the survivability of students should another fire occur.  An architectural inventory of buildings was done to determine what needed to change in order to keep students safe and to prevent another enormous loss of life.

Fire escapes were added where there were none.  Children were taught alternate escape routes.  Alarm systems were tied directly to fire departments to increase response time.  Sprinkler systems, which had been available since the 1800s, were installed.

One myth that arose from Collinwood was the issue of which way doors swung to open.  Some news outlets reported that the doors swung inward, causing the bottleneck at the rear entrance where most of the victims were found.  However, according to all testimony available, the doors of Lakeview School swung outward, as they should.  It is mistakenly attributed to Collinwood that the fire was the catalyst for mandating how doors opened in all buildings afterward.  In reality, it was the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire (December 30, 1903) in which 608 people were killed that changed that building standard.  Collinwood's contribution would revolve around clearances and number of escape routes, including external fire escapes.  Regarding the doors, it was determined that one half of the internal double doors at the exits of Lakeview had a spring latch at the top which the children did not, in their panic to escape the fire, know how to release.  The space at the landing of each staircase was entirely too small, causing a bottleneck in the only open doorway.  That doorway was just a little over two feet in width.  

Schools were not the only ones taking notice of the need for change.  Collinwood, which had fought annexation by Cleveland for years, would eventually give up the fight.  Proponents of the annexation would say that the children who died in the fire could have been saved had the fire department been as strong as it would be under Cleveland control.  Even had the Collinwood Volunteer Fire Department arrived more quickly, its ladders could only reach the second floor of the school.  It was Cleveland and its hook and ladder that could reach all the way to the top of the school.  Unfortunately, the floors caved into the basement just as the Cleveland unit's ladder was raised to the third floor in an effort to save students.  Collinwood's infrastructure had not kept pace with its growing population.  Its equipment was outdated and barely able to be maintained.  When it was needed most, it was simply not enough.  

Probably the most significant aspect of the fire was the exemplary handling of the morgue detail by the Lakeshore shop.  Despite the chaos at the scene and in the streets, the doctors, nurses, and workers at the Lakeshore shop kept a firm, orderly hand on the overwhelming task of identifying victims.  Each body was initially tagged and covered in a gray blanket when brought into the temporary morgue.  The sheer number of dead made organizing the identification process a daunting task.  Bodies were grouped in tens.  Family members would examine each body in search of anything that would indicate it was their loved one.  Once the body was identified, it was covered in a white sheet and moved from the group.  The body tag was removed and recorded.  Afterward, the corpse was moved to a waiting hearse to be brought to the viewing area of choice by the family, which was typically the victim's home.

While the morgue organization at Lakeshore may seem like common sense, it was ahead of its time from an emergency management perspective.  Today, we employ the Incident Command System (ICS), which is a national uniform method of managing large-scale emergencies.  In 1908 – sixty years before the ICS would become an accepted practice – municipalities did not plan for large-scale emergency events.  However, railroads did, as transportation accidents involving large numbers of victims occurred more often in the railway industry.  As a result, the Lakeshore shop was stocked and ready to handle the immediate influx of bodies at its site.  Lakeshore, the company, spearheaded the difficult and emotional task of victim identification.  Collinwood, the city, would have little to do with the process.  It lacked the resources to serve its people.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the heroics of Collinwood's citizens should not be forgotten.  These citizens were the parents of the children trapped inside the school.  They did everything the could to save the children.  Some watched their children die as the fire consumed the building.  There is no doubt that the horror of that day resounded in the minds and hearts of the fire's witnesses for their lifetimes.  From the families to those from the surrounding area and, indeed, the world, the compassion for the tiny commmunity's loss was spelled out in newspaper articles, books, and other media of the day.

But here we are, the 21st century.  Surely we don't have to worry about such tragedies anymore, right?

Unfortunately, even as recently as 2013, we still see mass casualties caused by poor emergency exiting in crowded places.  Most recently memorable in the United States was The Station nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island (February 20, 2003), where over 400 people had gathered in a small nightclub to see the band Great White perform.  Illegal pyrotechnics ignited flammable acoustic foam on the walls and ceiling, starting a sweeping fire.  Video taken from the start of the fire to its climax (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqvWxS719W8) shows just how people can be trapped in a doorway, just like Collinwood (see timestamp 1:59 of video) .  Narrow escape routes resulted in people being wedged in the doorway, unable to escape the weight of bodies pushing from behind them.  The result was 100 fatalities.  The building had no sprinklers, which would have all but guaranteed 100% survivability for the patrons.  Instead, The Station became a grim reminder that we still need to shore up our safety practices and fire safety standards.

The Collinwood disaster is remembered by those in Northeast Ohio, but the memory is fading.  It is important to preserve the stories of that day so that we do not forget the valuable lessons taught by the loss of so many innocent lives.  We will do well to pass along what was learned to the generations that follow so that history does not repeat itself.  Or, if it does, it is not to the extent of its predecessor's 172 victims.

J.R. Namsick
March 30, 2015