Boyertown, PA Rhoades Opera House Terrible Fire, Jan 1908
A big German who encountered the locked entrance door pounded against it with his fists. Others fumbled for the bolt. The door stood firm. The German placed his shoulders against the door, but it did not give. It was only when the crowd had pressed those next the door forward with tremendous force that the door gave way and the foremost were thrown down the steep steps.
The momentum of the crowd carried others over the brink, and threw them on top of the scrambling, squirming heap at the bottom. At least a score were trampled to death in the struggle to regain their footing at the bottom of the steps. The mass of bodies obstructed the stair and prevented those in the rear from getting out.
The Boyertown Volunteer Fire Department had water playingon the building five minutes after the alarm was sounded. The Pottstown Fire Department arrived at 11:50, but all the available water failed to quench the flames. At 5 o'clock the roof of the building fell in. At 6 o'clock this morning the fire was under control. The first body was not brought out until 8:30 o'clock.
As soon as the firemen could get into the building there was a demand for bags to place the charred bodies and bones in. Owing to the fact that but few ladders were available the task of carrying the bodies to the ground was slow. Later in the day a detachment of Troop C, State Constabulary, arrived from Wissingnoming, and the crowd which impeded the work was pushed back from the ruins, larger ladders secured, and the work was facilitated.
School Building a Morgue.
The public school building on Washington Street was turned into a morgue.
MRS. H. E. MONROE, head of the Entertainment Bureau which conducted the play in the opera house last night, arrived here to-day and made vain inquiries fot the body of her sister, MRS. STELLA E. MAYERS, who was in charge of the school children.
Boyertown did not wait and weep under the burden of grief. The people of the town, which has a population of 2,000, bore up bravely under the load of affliction. In many cases entire families were wiped out. There is not a family in the town which has not been bereaved. Yet the calamity has been taken soverly and stolidly.
Burgess KOHLER personally visited all the hotel and saloon keepers in the borough and ordered them to close their bars.
Mayor REYBURN of Philadelphia set aside $500 from the fund of the Permanent Relief Committee for the use of the Boyertown sufferers early to-day, and sent a message of condolence, with a request to be called on for contributions or other aid.
Boyertown had already organized a relief committee, and Burgess KOHLER accepted the contribution toward relieving immediate distress.
Two eye witnesses who lost relatives are J. J. BECKER, agent for the Reading Railroad, and FRANK CULLEN, a blacksmith. BECKER was one of the cast in the tableaus. He saw the outbreak of the panic, saw the flames shoot up, saw them spread. In the front row sat his wife and daughter, who perished.
Boy Climbed to Safety.
CULLEN attended the entertainment with his wife and one son. At the beginning of danger, he threw his son from a window as he supposed to his death, for CULLEN preferred that the boy should be mangled to death than he should die by fire. But the boy alighted on the landing of a fire escape; from there he climbed down to safety. Then CULLEN rushed back into the fire to save his wife, but in vain, MRS. CULLEN was numbered among the dead.
"Many of the men who perished in the fire were employed in the Boyertown Casket Company," Burgess KOLER said to-night. "The majority were carpenters employed in the making of coffins. Many a poor fellow unconsciously labored over the coffin in which he will be buried."
The Burgess stated that the borough has no ordinances covering building inspection. He said that the State building law applies to the town.
"Several years ago," he stated, "a State Inspector visited the Opera House and looked it over. He ordered that fire escaped be erected on both sides of the building. This was done, and the Inspector then said that the building was satisfactory."
The REV. ADAM M. WEBER, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church, under whose auspicies the play was given, brought six of his children with him. MR. WEBER told of the panic as follows:
"I was sitting in the front row of the Opera House with three of the little children who were to take the part of pages. Suddenly there came a hiss from the rear of the house, where the stereoptican lantern was placed. Immediately all the people around arose to see what was the matter."
"The curtain was lowered, and when the people on the stage heard the noise they raised it. Just then a wave of the crowd broke upon the stage and together with the raising of the curtain, upset the tank of oil which fed the eight burners used for footlights. Two of these burners immediately began to blaze up. I threw one of the little girls with me upon the stage and then followed her myself. Seizing a cap, I started to beat out the flames, which were shooting from the two burners. Some one threw down a piece of carpet and tried to assist in extinguishing the fire."
"When the blaze got beyond control four man and myself tried to life the oil tank, and throw it out of the window. The heat of the fire, however, had melted the soldering, and the hole blazed up in a burst of lame that shot up to the ceiling. There was no hope of saving the building now."
Jumped to Safety.
"When I was half way down the fire escape I saw a little girl sitting on a window sill above me and crying. I called to her to jump. She did so. I caught her by her dress. It tore as I grasped it, and the girl fell to the ground below. At the same time a woman scated on the same window sill made the same leap, and was caught between the fire escape and the wall. When I reached the ground my hands and face pained me so that I went to a druggist, and after having them dressed, went home. There I found five of my children me. My daughter MARY escaped by jumping upon the keys of the piano near the stage and in that way reaching the platform. From here she was carried down the steps leading from the stage."
DR. J. K. EVANS of Malvern, assisting in supervising the removal of the bodies, tonight remarked there were nine women to every man among the dead. He does not believe that 10 per cent of the victims will be fully identified.
A fifth morgue was established to-night in the High School. Undertakers from Reading and Pottstown have been sent for to assist in arranging bodies for identification. Personal effects and trinkets found on bodies are laid beside them for identification.
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