Camden, SC School House Tragedy, May 1923

Remains Of School School Building Memorial On School Site




Camden, S. C., May 18 -- Seventy-four persons, many of them school children, lost their lives last night in a ghastly fire which swept through a country school house six miles south of here.

They were burned, suffocated and trampled to death in a mad, terrified scramble for the one exit that led from the top floor of the flimsy wooden structure.

Death List Expected To Grow.
Perhaps a score of others are so badly burned they may die, and many who were successful in their frenzied dash for the stairway are suffering from injuries or varying degrees of seriousness.
The terrible tragedy occurred at what is known as the Cleveland School. Those who escaped today told the horror details of a night of horror.
Between 150 and 200 persons were gathered in the school house for graduation exercises. The school house was of the old fashioned country, wooden type, with a stairway in the rear and lighted only with kerosene lamps, located in a comparatively isolated community with no other houses or building nearby.
The audience was made up of fathers, mothers and children, the latter dressed in their "Sunday best" for the biggest community event of the year.
About 10:00 P. M. after most of the exercises had been completed and the superintendent of schools was presenting the ribbon-bound diplomas to the graduates of the eighth grade, there was a terrific explosion. It came from a smoky kerosene lamp swinging in the rear of the hall from the ceiling.
Burning oil was scattered over the back part of the big square room and flames appeared instantaneously, catching readily at the dry wood. The only staircase was in the rear and almost before those in the room realized what had happened escape was virtually cut off. The flames immediately surrounded the stairway.

Leap From Windows.
Those in the rear of the room dashed through the blinding smoke and jumped from the windows to safety below. Those nearest the platform and in the front seats of the hall were not so fortunate. With no windows from the platform and the smoke and confusion growing worse every second, there resulted a mad, terrified scramble for the one hope -- the stairs.
It was sheer panic and it paid the usual price of panic.
Women and children, gay in their white graduation costumes were knocked down and trampled under foot ant the interior of the hall became in a few minutes a screaming, milling mass of horror-stricken people, intent upon but one thing -- escape.
Some of those who escaped said later the doors of the auditorium "opened the wrong was," and that a score of persons got jammed against a closed door and thus held up escape for many.

Warning Ignored.
The Superintendent of Schols[sic], on the stage with diplomas in his arms, made a futile attempt to stem the tide of panic. He shouted that all could get out safely, if they took their time, but his voice was lost in the screams of the women and the children.
The superintendent and those of the graduating class, being furthest from the stairway, are believed to have perished.
The flames spread through the dry wooden building with almost unbelievable speed. Within a few moments after the explosion the whole rear portion was blazing high, and the flames, fanned by a stiff wind, began to eat into the flooring.

70 In Inferno.
Then, the second floor collapsed and down into that raging inferno of fire and burning embers went all who were left -- established at about 70 persons.
The first of hose who escaped by jumping out of the windows dashed across fields for the nearest farm houses for telephones by which to summon aid. Practically the whole countryside was at the school house, however, and some houses were locked. Telephones are not many any way, in the community.
Camden finally was notified and chemical fire apparatus was sent on the run. When it arrived it was too late -- the school house was a mass of burning embers, smoking and black -- the funeral pyre of half this little community.
When the Camden firemen arrived they looked upon the mass of ruins around which stood weeping mothers, frantic fathers and wailing children, looking for their loved ones.
There were a score of persons lying groaning on the ground, suffering from broken limbs and fractures suffered in leaping from the windows.

Night Of Terror.
The darkness was lighted only by the ruddy glow of the smouldering fire and in the intense heat and amid confusion the work of finding out who had escaped and who had died continued throughout the night.
Dawn this morning found a wearied, blackened crowd on men working feverishly. At 8 o'clock they had succeeded in pulling 74 bodies from the ruins. The work of identification has not been completed because of the confusion and the stunned condition of those who escaped.
Several whole families, however, have been wiped out.
"There was no one to blame," said the chief of police here. "It all happened so quickly and the panic was natural."
All of the victims were either graduates, students of the little school or parents and friends.

The Syracuse Herald New York 1923-05-18


Read another article about the tragedy (below)


Camden fire

I have an aunt Evelyn Johnson(103) who was a child WHEN THE BIG FIRE OCCURED IN Camden AT A GRADUATION. She remembers looking across the countryside as a child. She said all the houses were there but they were all empty. The fire killed everyone as far as she could see to the horizon.

Last survivor of fire passes away.

Mrs. Pearl Godwin Tiller passed away Sunday, January 1, 2012, at the age of 93. She was a patient in the hospital in Camden. She lost her baby sister in the fire as well as the black girl, Sadie Wade, who had come to babysit. Her Dad had tried to pull them to safety but the stairs collapsed and he could not hold on to them. Her mother, who was trampled, was pregnant at that time. Miss Pearl said she had footprints on her chest. They looked for her brother throughout the night, thinking that he, too, had succumbed, they went on to their wagon to go home. Much to their surprise, they found him sound asleep under the blankets in the hay.