By Tom Jenson
Fire Code Specialist
It has been 114 years since the tragic Lakeview School Fire in Collinwood, Ohio, on March 4, 1908. This devastating fire took the lives of 172 students, two teachers and one rescuer as horrified parents watched their loved ones die. It was not the deadliest school fire in history but there were many lessons learned.
The school was new in 1901, and by 1908 the size of the student body quickly exceeded building capacity. School began at 8:30 that morning with a prayer. At 9:30 the bell rang, signaling the end of first period. A fifth grader who was going to the basement restrooms observed smoke coming from the basement. She notified the custodian who went to ring the school evacuation bell. According to the investigation the fire started in a basement storage closet by the front wooden stairway. Upon hearing the alarm, teachers and students prepared to evacuate just as they had previously drilled. They quickly discovered this was not just another fire drill, but the real thing. Panic set in.
This school was primarily wood construction with a brick exterior. There were no protected vertical openings. Stairways were open from the basement to the third story. Classrooms wrapped around an open hall to those stairways. As students and teachers started to evacuate, smoke and flames traveled vertically, quickly compromising the front entrance. The smoke and flames spread across the basement to the other open stairway.
Some teachers, seeing the exits obstructed by smoke, fire and students, directed their pupils to the one exterior fire escape. Other teachers lowered students to safety through first-floor classroom windows. Survivors stated that a mere three minutes after the fire was discovered, exits were obstructed by flames and the bodies of victims. Younger students would fall at the exits from the rush of older students trying to escape. The building was destroyed in less than 15 minutes — not unlike like the Station Night Club.
Immediate lessons learned: School boards took inventory of their schools and made changes. They looked at construction methods, providing additional fire escapes and connecting fire alarms directly to the fire department. Some would add fire sprinklers.
In Minnesota there are no “grandfather clauses" in the fire code. Chapter 11 contains many requirements for existing building construction that would not have allowed this fire to spread vertically and go undetected. Read more about this fire at Collinwood School Fire Repository and be thankful for this website and the stories of the victims so we never forget.
You can reach our fire code team at firstname.lastname@example.org.