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The Collinwood School Fire

The morning of March 4, 1908 seemed like any other morning in Collinwood, Ohio. Parents woke up, got their kids ready for school and sent them off for their day.

 

It was a chilly winter morning, with snow in the area, and everyone was looking forward to the coming spring. But what the parents sending their children to the Lake View Elementary School didn’t know is that for many of them, the morning of March 4 would be the last time they would be able to hold their children in their arms.

Lakeview Elementary School was a small school, near the shore of Lake Erie in a small town known as Collinwood, Oh. Collinwood was a small town, home to about 8,000 people, it was a place where everyone knew everyone and neighbors looked out for each other.

 

Though small, the town was a diverse collection of people from many backgrounds, mainly due to the railroad industry that was prominent in the area. According to one of my sources, “...by 1899, Collinwood had its own school system, newspaper, six churches, plentiful business and even an amusement park.

Over 300 children attended Lakeview Elementary, which stood 4 stories tall and housed 9 classrooms. School began each day at 8:45 am.

 

March 4, 1908 started off as any other day for the students. Parents would get them up and ready for school, some more ready for the day then others. Mothers and fathers would watch their kids head out for a day of learning, not knowing that this day would soon become a nightmare.

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The children arrived at school, filing into their classrooms to start the day.

 

At around 9:30 am, about 45 minutes after classes began, a fifth-grade student named Emma Neibert noticed smoke rising from a storage closet in the basement. She would inform the janitor, Mr. Fritz Hirter, and he would rush to sound the fire alarm.

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Miss Lynns First Grade Class Collinwood

Sitting in their classrooms, many of the students were no doubt focusing on what they were being taught, or maybe thinking about what they would do once the school day was over. When the fire alarm rang, many assumed it was another drill and began moving towards the classroom doors to exit the building as they had trained to do many times before. As they entered the hallways though, it became apparent that this wasn’t a drill.

 

The kindergartners of Miss Ethel Rose’s class would be the only ones to make it through the front door of the schoolhouse before it would become impassable due to flames. Upon realizing they could not escape the building through the front exit, students began to panic and rush toward the rear exit of the school. In the chaos, students would trip over one another as they tried to escape. Children who had been rushing for the front exits found themselves trapped in the hallway between a mess of their classmates coming down the main stairs and the flames which were quickly growing. Students heading toward the rear exit found the small doorway leading out of the school was blocked by other children who had become stuck in an attempt to all make it through the door at the same time.

Above them, on the higher floors, Miss Laura Body led her fifth-grade class down the hallway, to the stairs that would take them to the first floor. When she realized that there was no way to escape through the first floor exits, she walked her students back to the main fire escape. She was able to break the glass of a window and get most of her students out to safety. Some students on the higher floors attempted to escape in a similar manner, but not all would be successful, and several students would perish after jumping out the windows.

By this time, word of the fire had already spread through the town, and everyone had either already made their way to the school or were on their way. The fire department had been summoned and were also making their way to the scene. Many parents would arrive, only to find that their children were trapped inside the building with no way out.

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The Cincinnati Enquirer from March 5, 1908 recounts several tales of parents desperately trying to save their children. One such story, speaking of a father named Wallace Upton, reads as follows:

 

“Just in front of Upton’s eyes was his own ten-year-old daughter, helpless in the crush, badly burned and trampled upon, but still alive. The fire was close upon her, and if she could not be saved at once she could not be saved at all. Upton sprang to help her and with all his strength sought to tear her from the weight that was pressing her down and from the flames, which were creeping close.

Although he worked with desperation his strength was unequal to the task. He fought until his clothing was partly burned from him and the skin on his face and hands were scorched. Other men attempted to induce him to move, but he refused until he saw that his girl was dead and that he could not save her life by sacrificing his own. He then withdrew from the schoolhouse, and, although so seriously injured that he may die, lingered about the place for several hours, refusing to go to a hospital or seek medical attention.”

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This was just one of many stories involving parents desperately trying to save their children from the blaze, and watching in horror with no way to do anything to rescue them. 

 

One of the students, Marie Witman, was credited with braving the fire to save her little brother, and was able to get him and herself out through a window with smoke nearly choking them before they escaped.

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The fire raged on, burning the cross supports of the building until they were unable to support the weight from the floors above. Without warning, the building collapsed, and all who were still trapped inside would perish.

 

Initial reports estimated between 160-170 children had lost their lives. In the end, the total would be 172 students and 2 teachers. More than half of the families in the town lost at least one child in the tragedy.

 

The railroad company opened a nearby building as a makeshift morgue, and volunteers worked for hours to sift through the rubble and recover the bodies. Grieving parents would filter in through the day and night to try and identify their children, many needing to be identified by trinkets they wore as they were burned beyond recognition. 19 bodies were unable to be identified and had to be buried in a mass grave in the Lake View Cemetery in nearby Cleveland.

One of the teachers, Miss Colmar, recounted a heartbreaking story of the children she could not save:

 

“It was awful. I can see the wee things in my room holding out their tiny arms and crying for me to help them. Their voices are ringing in my ears yet, and I shall never forget them. When the alarm rang, I started the pupils to marching from the building. When we started down the front stairs we were met by a solid wall of flame and clouds of dense smoke. We retreated, and when we turned the children became panic stricken and I could not do anything with them. They became jammed in the narrow stairway and I knew that the only thing for me to do was to get around to the rear door, I suppose, and help those who were near the entrance. When I got there, after climbing out of a window, I found the children so crowded in the narrow passageway that I could not even pull one of them out. 

Those behind pushed forward, and as I stood there the little ones piled up on one another. Those who could stretched out their arms to me and cried for me to help them. I tried with all my might to pull them out and stayed there until the flames drove me away.”

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In the aftermath of the fire, the grieving community looked for who to blame. A coroner's inquest was held to determine the cause of the fire, but no one cause could be established. Many people placed blame on the Janitor, Fritz Hirter, who they suspected had been in the basement when the fire started and had somehow caused it.

The official cause would be labeled as an overheated steam pipe coming in contact with a dry joist, but Mr. Hirter would argue against this being the cause, stating the furnaces were running low that day because it was unusually warm. This is in dispute as the reported temperature on the day was around the freezing mark. Mr. Hirter also reported that he was on the way to turn up the furnace when he met the 3 girls that had reported the fire, but those three girls reportedly perished in the fire, which seems odd since they would have been the first to see it. He would seek police protection due to the anger from the community, but that anger would subside when people realized that he lost 3 of his own children in the fire that day.

Initial reports stated that the main cause for the loss of life was that the doors to the school building opened inward instead of outward. This would be shown to be incorrect as the investigation unfolded. During fire drills, students had been trained to head for the main exit of the school, which would be the exit that was blocked by fire on March 4. The rear door of the school was only a little over 5 feet wide with both doors open, but would become even narrower when one of the doors closed as students were trying to escape, causing them to try and fit through a much smaller area and subsequently clog up the opening easier. There was also one fire escape available, but it didn’t go all the way to the ground, and many children were too afraid to make the 6 foot jump needed to escape.

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The town fire department turned out to be another major issue. As a smaller town, Collinwood had 20 volunteer firefighters and very basic equipment. Their ladders were not tall enough or sturdy enough to rescue children from the higher floors. From the time the fire started, it took 20 minutes for the fire department to arrive on scene. Someone had to run nearly a mile from the school to the fire department and ring the alarm bell to summon the volunteers, who were able to get to the station, get horses hitched up and get to the school. The horses they used needed to be borrowed as the horses owned by the fire department were being used on the other side of town to clear snow and ice.

In the days, weeks and years that followed the disaster, it would be used as an example to promote fire safety in schools. Most of the change would take years and even decades as many schools considered themselves already sufficient. Within days of the tragedy the Ohio Congress had passed a bill that was signed by the governor that set aside $25,000 (About $750,000 in 2022) to create a committee of three residents of Collinwood, known as the Collinwood school fire relief commission, to examine the list of victims and pay them up to $100 (About $3000 in 2022) per child lost or injured in the fire. Though this would never make whole the families of the victims, it would help to cover the cost to lay the victims of this horrific tragedy to rest.

As a parent myself, I can’t fathom the pain these families went through. Within the span of only a few hours, parents lost their children, a community had it’s heart ripped out and the future would change for the whole country. The changes made to school fire safety regulations following this disaster have potentially saved hundreds or possibly even thousands of students, but we can never know the full impact. How many disasters were averted because 172 students lost their lives on March 4, 1908?

 

There is a narrative in this story around why it should take a tragedy of this magnitude for life saving changes to take place. How many times have changes to keep people safe only happened AFTER an event? When the response is “well, it was just too expensive to do these things before this happened”. 

The lesson I took away from this story is to hold your loved ones close and treat every day like it could be the last time you see them.

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