Collinwood, OH School Fire, Mar 1908 - Officials Seek Cause of Fire

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SEEK THE CAUSE OF OHIO SCHOOL FIRE.

INVESTIGATORS BELIEVE IS WAS CAUSED BY OVERHEATED BOILER -- JANITOR COLLAPSES.

FIRE STARTED IN CLOSET.

Theory That Little Girls Started the Blaze in Play -- School Board Member Says Fire Incendiary.

Special to The New York Times.
Cleveland, Ohio, March 5 -- Search for testimony to bear out a theory adopted by Fire Chief WALLACE of Cleveland that the fire disaster in the Collinwood school in which 162 pupils and two teachers died yesterday morning, was caused by an overheated boiler, due to lack of water for a considerable time, was made to-day.

FRED HIRTER, the janitor, three of whose children perished before his eyes, was questioned at length by Deputy State Fire Marshals HARRY BROCKMAN and NATHAN FIEGENBAUM. They, with Chief WALLACE and City Building Inspector S. S. LOUGEE, united in the opinion that the lead of 14-year-old ANNA NEUBERT, who first saw the smoke and told her story to-day, should be followed.

The little girl had said she started down a basement stairway, was halted by spirals of smoke, saw a man frantically working at the steam valves of a red-hot boiler, then fled. She came back, she said, and called to HIRTER, whose name she would not use in describing her first sight of a man in the basement, that the building was afire. She said HIRTER was opening the grate of the boiler.

HIRTER told the inspectors his fires were low at 9:30, and that he was working at his boilers when the child called to him. He said also that only non-inflammable lime was in the closet from which flames first sprang. He declared pupils stumbled on the steps leading to the fateful west door, and that their fall caused the jamming of the entrance.
The doors opened outward, he said, and occupied nearly five feet of the ten-foot eight-inch entrance width. Shoulders to the doors caused the blocking of the rush also, in the opinion of the investigators. When HIRTER was asked finally about the condition of the boilers, he collapsed. He will be questioned to-morrow, being unable to talk to-night.

Girders Above Boilers Burned.
The investigators learned that the girders just above the boilers had been burned thoroughly, while timbers elsewhere where charred only. They decided an explosion could not have caused the fire, and that only an overheated boiler and steam pipes, close to the ceiling and improperly protected, could be blamed. That is the basis of the investigation now.

An investigation conducted by the Collinwood School Board, at which a number of survivors of the horror told their stories, brought forth these facts:
That one of the inner doors at the west entrance of the school was closed and fastened while children were piling up against it in the passage; wing partitions in the vestibule narrowed the exit by at least three feet; the flames came first from a closet below the stairway at the east entrance; the closet contained lime and sawdust; three little girls had been found hiding in play in the closet earlier in the morning; there was but one fire escape, and its use never was taught as part of the fire drill.

Escape Cut Off in Few Minutes.
Survivors among the teachers estimate that only two or three minutes passed from the time of the alarm until all escape was cut off. The building was a fair sample of the kind of school construction in use in small towns. The halls and stairways were inclosed between interior brick walls, forming a huge flue, through which the flames shot up with great rapidity.

On the question, much discussed, whether the doors opened inward or outward. Fire Marshals BROCKMAN and FEIGENBAUM examined the doorways to-day and stated later that they were convinced that they opened outward. Whether they were locked the Marshals have not been able to determine. They have testimony on both sides. Janitor FRED HIRTER still insists that the doors were open.

It was at first supposed that the fire came from an overheated furnace or an exploded boiler in the basement of the schoolhouse. It has been established that there was no explosion, and the janitor of the school, HIRTER says, it could not have come from the furnace. Yesterday in Collinwood was comparatively warm beside the last few days immediately preceding it, and HIRTER declares that he maintained the fires at a lower rate than usual throughout the early part of the morning. Fearing he had not sufficiently warmed the building, he was, according to his story, on his way to open the furnace drafts and increase the heat when he was met by the three little girls running from the basement, who told him there was a fire below. These three little girls are now being sought by the police and by the Fire Commissioners. It is considered entirely possible by certain members of the Collinwood School Board that they may have through carelessness started the blaze which cost lives of so many children.
Positive Fire Was Incendiary.

L. R. GARDNER, a member of the School Board, is positive in his assertion that the fire was of incendiary origin. In that portion of the building where it was discovered there are no electric light wires, there was neither waste nor rags, and there was no direct means of creating heat. It is therefore believed by MR. GARDNER and by others that the three little girls may, if they are ever found, throw some light on the cause of the awful tragedy of yesterday.

There were in the building at the time the fire was discovered bbetween 310 and 825[sic] pupils. They were under the control of nine teachers. Two of these are among the dead. The school was overcrowded, and quarters had been provided for the younger children in the attic. Strange as it may seem, more of the pupils escaped from this part of the schoolhouse than from any other.

From the upper floors of the building two stairways offered exit. One of these led to the door in front, the other to the door in the year[sic]. It was at this last place that the lives of the little ones were lost while would-be rescuers stood helpless. The rear door, it is asserted by many, opened, like the front door, toward the interior of the building.
In order to reach this entrance the pupils were compelled to march down a stairway, make the sharp turn in a narrow hall and then pass through the doorway. It was the lack of space in the hall and the quick bend at the foot of the stairs that cost so many lives at this point. When the first of the children fleeing from the fire in front approached this door it was closed.

Principal Says Doors Not Locked.
MISS ANNA MORAN, the Principal of the school, denies that the doors opened toward the inner part of the building, and insists that they were never locked during school hours. She said:
"When the bell rang, I, and I suppose other teachers, thought it was a regular fire drill. Every child in the school has gone out over and over again from the second floor to the open air in one minutee and thirty seconds. You can judge from that how quickly we reached the first floor. When we neared the front door we saw the flames coming up the basement stairs, and without knowing it we led those little children into the very face of the fire."

"It is not true that the doors opened toward the inside, and they were not locked. The trouble was that only one of the double outer doors was open. The other was fastened with a spring at the top. Before the janitor got it open the children had wedged themselves into the vestibule, and the others in a panic stumbled and climbed and crowded over them. It was frightful -- so near safety."

"If I could have turned my line back they would have had some chance on the third floor, but they kept coming down, and we could not stop them or do anything to save them. Men from the outside were trying to pull the children out, but they were crushed so tightly together that no human strength could clear a passageway. Dozens of them died within a foot of absolute safety."

The death roll numbers 161. Of these 131 have been identified at the Lake Shore Morgue.

Digging in the Ruins.
The work of digging in the ruins of the schoolhouse in further search for remnants of children still missing began with the break of day. Dawn found mothers and fathers waiting about the fire-ruined building after having spent the night in an effort to find their children's remains at the extemporized morgue. But little was brought forth during the day that would satisfy their longings, and it is believed to-night that all the bodies in the ruins have been taken out.

Burial of the dead is the burden now confronting those in authority in the little village. Arrangements for the funerals of the victims were discussed to-night at a meeting attended by the Mayor of Collinwood, members of the Board of Education, the clergy, and the undertakers. The idea of having a public funeral of all the dead has been abandoned, though it is probable that where it can be done bodies will be grouped in one church.

To-night the work of removing the identified bodies to their former homes was completed and the undertakers set to work to prepare for the interments on the morrow.
In the homes of the afflicted citizens of the village the weeping parents were sustained by the presence of visiting nurses and women who volunteered to lend such comfort as lay within their power.

The appointment of a relief committee by the Collinwood Board of Trade and Town Council to-day also is designed to care for the bodies of the unidentified dead, as well as assisting the bereaved parents. Should any parent desire to undertake the interment of one of the bundles of human flesh and bones, believing it may he his or her child, the parent will be permitted to do so. The remainder of the bodies will be laid side by side in the cemetery.

The Board of Education of the City of Cleveland to-night ordered all city schools closed to-morrow, and that flags be half-masted on all buildings.

The New York Times New York 1908-03-06