Crystal myth, the drug so dear … Great fires in history
There is a saying that some of the most precious moments in our lives are special just because we didn’t know that they were important at that time.
I mention this because for the past few weeks I’ve been experiencing a resurgence of interest in the topic of famous fires, a subject that has fascinated and haunted me ever since I happened across a book on the topic at the library at MacDill Air Force Base (Tampa, Florida) when I was eleven years old. I remember sitting in the aisle between the shelves, utterly spellbound by black and white photos of the aftermaths of great conflagrations. There I learned for the first time about the Iroquois Theater in Chicago (1903), the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York (1911), and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston (1942). Even at that age, I could fill the images of the blackened and scorched buildings with visions of crowds of people being burned and trampled as they tried to escape. I saw in my mind’s eye the mingled bravery and helplessness of the firemen and could imagine the unavailing anguish of the victims’ families. I never forgot about that red-covered book whose name I cannot now recall, for it engendered an interest in me that resurfaces whenever a new book is published on the subject of a famous fire.
Habermann, Franz Xaver (1721-1796) - Engraver
“Representation du Feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck”
In: The Eno Collection of City Views
Books on Famous Fires
I recently read the books Chicago Death Trap and Tinder Box (both available from New York Public Library), about the Iroquois Theater fire. They are very well written, and it is easy for their readers to imagine themselves in the audience watching the musical comedy “Mister Bluebeard” on that fateful December afternoon shortly after Christmas.
One frame in life’s endless ribbon of events
And here is the core of this entry. The families and couples and shopgirls and children who filled the hall to capacity and beyond that day had no idea while watching a song-and-dance number called “In the Pale Moonlight” that a stage lamp being used to flood the theater with a beautiful blue light was sparking and setting one of the scenery curtains afire. Half an hour after this moment of ignition, over six hundred of the audience would be dead, many more trampled than burned in a terrible stampede to the narrrow exits. I am haunted by this last moment before the fire and the panic. I replay it in my mind’s eye and can iris in like a camera on any and every detail. …The ornate theater, newly opened. Men in celluloid collars and vests sitting next to their wives in corsets, high-button shoes and immense feathered hats. Children excited by the performance or bored and wishing they were home playing with their new toys. Audience members standing behind the last rows of seats or sitting in the aisles. The excited cast and crew members backstage readying sets, props and costumes. The gasps of wonder from the viewers as the theater fills with artificial “moonlight”. Aerialist Nellie Reed waiting high above the stage, ready to swing out over the audience during her number where she’ll scatter flower petals over the crowd. (She will be one of the few cast members to perish when she is forgotten on her perch after the fire breaks out.)… It’s all so poignant and pregnant with portent … to me, because I know what’s going to happen next! None of the people there in the theater that afternoon knew that they would soon be fighting for their lives. Until the fire brought its tragedy, this was an average performance in a typical theater for everyday people. I use my imagination to crystallize a moment into a myth that is very powerful for my mental picture of the world. I can put myself virtually into the audience and freeze that instant in time, viewing it from every angle. But in real life, this is just one “frame” in life’s endless ribbon of events, no more or less special than any other.
I know that events can’t really be frozen into a bell jar or vitrine. Logic says that there was nothing remarkable about the last distribution of pay envelopes that Saturday afternoon at the Triangle factory, or singer Goodie Goodell playing the piano atop a revolving platform that night in the Melody Lounge at the Cocoanut Grove. But I choose, emotionally, to focus on and reflect on them, combing them for meaning and sometimes being reduced to tears at the evocative power of their sheer ordinariness. To return to the theme of this post, these things and moments were special because they were not important at their time. I have the luxury of living later and being able to “stop the film”, so to speak. The people caught up in these events were forced into and through them and did not have this choice. Maybe this is why I think so much about them.