Boyertown, PA Rhoades Opera House Terrible Fire, Jan 1908
HEMMED IN BY FIRE.
One of the young people on the stage, more excited than the others, made a motion as if to repel the audience, and in his excitement he overturned one of the coal oil lamps that were used as footlights for the stage. It fell with a crash into the auditorium and exploded.
In an instant the stage in front was ablaze, and the frightened people surged toward the rear again. The youthful actors fled from the stage, and managed to escape, clad in their stage garments.
The crowd in the front of the auditorium fled to the rear as the flames from the stage edged toward them, and they were met by a crowd from the rear, frantic to escape from the peril of the burning picture machine in the rear. The mob became panic stricken, and strong men beat down women and children in their effort to get out of the building.
FRANK CULLEN, a blacksmith, seized his four-year-old son and made his way to a window. When he attempted to return to get his wife she was in a struggling mass of humanity, and it was impossible for him to reach her.
The flames spread rapidly, and many of the audience were caught and overcome before they could reach the fire escapes. The frenzied people fought with each other to reach the front entrance.
PEOPLE PILED AGAINST DOORS.
The frenzied people fought with each other to reach the front entrance, the principal means of exit from the building, and a struggling mass of humanity was quickly piled against the doors that led to the stairs on Philadelphia avenue. Here the flames soon overtook them, and they were burned to death almost in sight of escape from the seething furnace that surrounded them.
A number of people who were attracted by the cries of fire rushed from the street to the entrance of the opera house and up the stairs to the second floor. They succeeded in rescuing some, but were forced to abandon the others to their fate, as the quickly advancing flames drove them from the building.
CHARLES B. SPATZ, editor of the local paper and former member of the Legislature, escaped, but only to be injured a few moments later. He was fighting the flames and was standing upon a ladder when he slipped and fell. Three ribs were broken and he was cut about the head.
Survivors of the disaster and spectators unite in saying that the attending scenes were the most horrible that can be imagined. People threw themselves from the balcony into the body of the theatre, hoping to find some means of escape. Others jumped from the windows of the building and were either maimed or killed.
COULD WAIT ONLY FOR DEATH.
Meanwhile the flames which had broken out on the stage were spreading rapidly throughout the building, seemingly eager for their prey. Those who had fallen in the wild rush and who were so badly maimed that they were beyond all power to struggle and fight were wailing in anguish, their cries adding to the horror of the situation. They could do nothing but wait hopelessly for their fate â€“ to be roasted to death in the roaring furnace.
There were many heroes in the awful catastrophe. Some are not alive to tell of their deeds. They gave up their lives for others. Fathers and mothers who might have saved themselves lingered to get their children, and all perished in the flames. Brothers who might have got out in safety hesitated to make sure that their sisters were safe, and they, too, are numbered among the dead. Sweethearts, with little thought of themselves, beat all their energies in an effort to rescue their companions, and their lives were also added to the great harvest of death. Many who had reached the outside in safety dashed back into the burning building in a mad and fruitless endeavor to save. They never returned.
THE PROBABLE CAUSE.
What may be a true statement of the cause of the disaster was given by an eye witness. Toward the end of the performance, the man in charge of the moving picture machine was testing his apparatus and it gave forth a hissing sound. This caused a stir in the audience, and somebody on the stage lifted the curtain for the evident purpose of seeing what the commotion was about. On the front of the stage was a tin tank, about eight feet long and a few inches high, and in this were placed twelve kerosene lamps which served as footlights. The curtain tilted this tank over and this started the fire and the subsequent panic and awful loss of life.
There were 310 paid admissions to the theatre, and it is believed about 425 persons were in the hall, including the performers, when the fire started. Most of them were adults, as the show was not of a sort to appeal to children.
The fire was not brought under control until early next morning, after assistance had arrived from Reading and Pottstown.
Two special trolley cars from Reading brought members of the State constabulary, surgeons, trained nurses, and a large supply of hospital stores and first aid to the injured appliances. The State constabulary immediately took charge and roped off the scene. During the early morning a gasoline tank exploded and blew down the standing walls, and but for the precaution of the guards many others would have been killed.
The building which was destroyed was a large brick structure, three stories high, and with a frontage of 125 feet on Philadelphia avenue. The first floor was occupied by the Farmers' National Bank and a hardware store. The second and third floors were occupied by the opera house and a lodge.
The building also extended on Washington street for a distance of 250 feet. In the rear of the bank were four large dwelling houses which were a part of the building. These were burned.
The monetary loss will amount to about $75,000.
STORY OF EYE WITNESS.
REUBEN W. STOVER, one of those who escaped the flames, in speaking of the fire said: â€œWhen the noise like an explosion occurred, there were at least thirty boys and girls on the stage, while many more were behind the scenes. Without warning, there was a terrific explosion, which seemed to shake the entire building. Immediately there was a wild rush for the exits. The people on the stage jumped over the footlights into the audience. Everybody seemed to have lost control of himself. The flames first consumed the flimsy scenery and then came toward the crowd like a great wave, and the suffocating smoke dropped men, women and children in its path. The flames did the rest. It was a terrible sight, and I shall carry the recollection as long as I live. Once the crowd began to fight its way toward the doors no power on earth could have saved all the lives, but I believe that, if the men had not lost control of themselves, the loss of life would have been very small.â€
The borough president ordered all saloons closed, as the tough element was becoming unruly under the influence of liquor.
The Cranbury Press New Jersey 1908-01-17