March 4, 1908: The Collinwood School Fire


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


The Collinwood School Fire, also known as the Lakeview School Fire, broke out for unknown reasons on March 4, 1908. 175 people died, including 172 primarily immigrant students, 2 teachers, and 1 rescuer. It is one of the deadliest school disasters in U.S. history.


The Lakeview School was, unfortunately, build in a way that became a fire trap. The masonry exterior acted as a chimney, and flames were sucked in upward as the inside of the school burned. Only 2 exits existed and the fire quickly rendered the main exit useless.


Children rushed to the rear door, but it quickly became a stampede and the falling bodies became a pile, blocking the only other exit.


Collinwood's small, volunteer fire department was too little, too late. Their horse-drawn engines did not arrive in nearly enough time, and even if they had, they were ill-equipped to handle the blaze. The school collapsed in less than an hour.


The cause of the fire has never been determined. Theories ranging from the janitor running the boiler too hot to girls smoking in the bathroom ran rampant in the papers, but the official cause was "conditions", so it literally could not have been a lazier explanation.


The town paid for the burial of 19 unidentifiable children. Many wanted the new school to be built on the land where the school had collapsed, but mourning parents petitioned against it. The area became a memorial garden, and the new school was build on a lot adjacent.

MEDIA COVERAGE (2)


At the time, newspapers were entering a new era full of big headlines and eye-catching layouts, and interesting story content, often with embellished or straight out false content - anything to sell the papers.


The Collinwood disaster, as well as other disasters at the time, "mortified but captivated" audiences, so such a devastating event was able to capture the front pages over and over again.


One story featured a boy named Glenn Sanderson, an 11-year old who died in the fire. His parents had 2 children before him, who died in infancy. They had Glenn and another son, both of whom died in the fire. Their devastating story captured the front page in their small, hometown paper.


But heartbreak wasn't enough for the bigger city papers, which is how a paper reported that onlookers watched Glenn Sanderson die. He was, allegedly, trying to escape the inferno in the auditorium, and was swinging across trying to reach the fire escape, but when he missed his landing, he fell into the flames below. Despite the fact that nobody claims they saw that, and that it would have been nearly impossible to see inside a 3rd story window with smoke and flames pouring out of it to not only see that happen, but identify the child involved, that was the story that was told.


The 9 female teachers were also heavily covered in the media, with headlines and stories proving that these selfless women lived up to the expectations that teachers should risk or lose their lives to shield children from the fire.


2nd grade teacher Grace Fiske made it out of the building alive, but succumbed to her injuries and died shortly after. The story about her explained how she wrapped the children up in her clothes to get them out alive.


Another teacher, Katherine Weiler, the only other teacher who died, was said to have had her feet on the fire escape, nearly to safety, when she re-entered the burning building after heading the cries of her students.


But none of this seemed entirely true. Teacher Lulu Rowley, who was reported to have heroically saved many children, said in a later interview that her "mostly foreign" students were too filled with panic to be able to pay attention to her, so she jumped out the window, realizing she wouldn't be able to save anymore children. But heroic teacher risking her life to save children sells more papers than "Teacher Jumps Out Window Realizing She Can't Communicate With Immigrant Students".


According to witnesses, Weiler did not bravely run back inside to save children, but instead got caught in the stampede while trying to escape out the same door as everyone else, and, along with Friske, was likely trampled and burned while trying to get out the door.


The media also had a lot of sway in the public opinion of janitor Fritz Hirter, as early reports said that he had put coal in the furnace and left it unattended before going to his house to complete some personal chores. (Though some students claim they saw him at the school before the fire broke out).


One father with a child who died in the fire actually went to Hirter's house with the intent of killing him. Hirter was a working class, immigrant man in a school full of women and children. He was an easy target to take blame.


But after the initial shock wore off, he became a sympathetic figure in the media after it came out that he had not only lost a child in the fire, he had lost all 3 of his children. When asked to testify, he completely broke down. Colleagues testified to his dedication at work. Soon, the once demonized janitor became a symbol of heartbreak and sympathy.


Newspapers also had issues reporting the sorrow felt by the parents and survivors. While the parents of white children who had died in the blaze were given "dignity in their sorrow", parents of black and immigrant victims were written about as crazed and requiring help from white people to survive their grief. Parents were described as "frenzied" or "crazed, disheveled", and high risks of suicide if not for the intervention of white emergency personnel.


Despite having just lost 1, 2 or 3 children, the screaming and crying, the guttural, unimaginable reactions weren't described as such, they were reported as "incoherent muttering".


The Hungarian newspapers brought the tragedy to a different lens: Outrage. They felt that a fire that broke out with no apparent reason, and no apparent desire to find out why, was proof that immigrant children in the U.S. were seen as "disposable" and "not worthy of protection" and the cold, horrific way they were treated was many times worse than what they may have experienced in their own countries.

REMEMBERING


It is difficult to find a flawless memory of the events on March 4, 1908. Onlookers reported different, often conflicting, testimonies of the tragedy, likely a result of being wrapped up in such a horribly frenzy.


It is also impossible to determine a cause. First the janitor was the villain, but then it was definitely arson. Some saw a random person meddling with the furnace, and some blamed girls who had gone for a smoke.


In one of the most bizarre parts of the event, many reports stated that the children got bottlenecked at the rear door because of the inward-swinging doors, but it was proven that all of the doors swung outward, making it more difficult to understand why such a pile up would have occurred.


But regardless of what happened, 175 people lost their lives that day. One person who went in to help rescue children never came back out. 2 teachers, who's heroism may have been exaggerated but of course, could have absolutely happened, died after leaving that morning to go teach the youth of America.


And most horrifyingly and tragically, 172 children lost their lives. A list of all of the victims exists, and on that list, you can infer that 25 families lost 2 relatives that day, as there are 25 instances of duplicated last names. Whether siblings or cousins, 25 families lost 2 people they loved that day. There were 8 instances of a last name being shown 3 times, meaning that 8 families could have lost 3 of their children - which was the case for the janitor, who's 3 children are listed among the dead.


This event became a media frenzy - with conflicting, often embellished reports of the events, willingness to get things wrong for the sake of selling the paper, and, perhaps not consciously, reporting the similar heartbreak and tragedy felt by parents of different races completely differently.


Though 112 years have passed since the fire, similar problems still exist within our media portrayals of big events. An embellished newspaper headline then is "clickbait" now. Referring to white parents as "sad" and black parents as "crazed" then is showing a mugshot of a black victim and a prom photo of a white killer. We have come so far in the mediums we share news on and the vast reach of that news, but many of the problems remain the same.


But beyond the poor portrayal of this terrible event, it is important to remember that 175 people died that day. And this is a story that many people outside of the Cleveland, Ohio area may have never heard. So, even if it is 112 years later and everyone who was involved in it is long gone, here is quick reminder of all of those people, especially children, who never got to experience their future.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collinwood_school_fire

2. http://collinwoodfire.org/

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