Fire Curtains: Making People Sick While Protecting Their Lives

Theaters can be dangerous places. One spark can create a fire that grows out of control very quickly, which happened at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago on December 30, 1903. It had only been open for a few weeks, but was cited multiple times for potential fire hazards. Some of the problems included an absence of a stage shaft, wood being exposed in the proscenium arch (the arch framing the opening between the stage and the auditorium), and not having enough exits.

Other problems included the fire escape being too narrow, the pathways from the stage house to the exits being too confusing, the fire exits being hidden behind draperies, and complicated locks on the outside of doors. The architect did not think about safety while designing the theater.

During a sold out matinee performance the arc light from the building’s furnace shorted out and ignited a muslin curtain. The flames then traveled to the fly gallery (area next to the stage where ropes are manipulated to raise or lower scenery). The fire then ignited highly flammable painted canvases, leading it to the rafters. The asbestos fire curtain snagged, keeping it from stopping the fire from spreading. The iron gates also kept the theater goers from escaping the building, leading to 575 people dying in the fire and 30 people dying the day after due to injuries.

Whether or not the fire curtain was working properly, it was dangerous since it was made of asbestos. In fact, all theater curtains contained asbestos in the first half of the twentieth century because it was thought that the curtains would stop flames from spreading. However, when asbestos is in a fabric like a curtain, it can become friable and be released into the air when the curtain is opened and closed and when it shakes as a result of performances in the theater. People working in the theater could come in contact with the asbestos in the curtain on a daily basis, exposing them to the carcinogenic fibers regularly.  Also, patrons of the theater were exposed to asbestos fibers at every performance.

If you have been exposed to asbestos and have mesothelioma or lung cancer you may be entitled to file a claim. Fill out our contact form or call 412-471-3980 to speak to a lawyer and learn your options.


“Innovation on Fire: Reviewing Fire Curtain History” Wenger (June 17, 2014). [Link]


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