Brooklyn, NY Conway Theater Disaster, Dec 1876
There were 1,200 people in the house, 320 below and 900 on the other two floors. As is usual in such cases, the terrible record of the fire is to be attributed, not to the ruthless power of the flames, but to the panic. From all that can be learned, there were ample time and means of egress for the theatre to have emptied its occupants into the open air uninjured. Down stairs was by no means filled, and those in the orchestra seats and dress circle could have passed out in a minute or two. The gallery contained about four hundred and fifty persons, and theses could have all descended in safety, if they had observed the same order which ordinarily marks the egress of the occupants of the upper tier.
But it would seem that the sudden alarm overpowered the reason and self control of all alike. With few exceptions, the audience in the orchestra rushed headlong toward the doors. Those in the dress circle followed suit, and the most fatal and appalling evils resulted. Bereft of that calmness and self possession which enables one to use caution and to take advantage of every favorable chance, leaving him also at liberty to aid others and to facilitate order, the panic stricken throng dived headlong forward, using brute force to escape the disaster which was yet comparatively distant, and which was only converted from an ordinary accident into an awful calamity by that very ruthless and reckless haste. The weaker went down before the charge of the stronger, and women and children were the sufferers, as usual. In the body of the theatre and in the corridor scores were crushed and jammed almost to death, and many were thrown to the floor and trampled on.
In the gallery the scene as depicted by hasty eye witnesses was one that baffles description. Men in the agony of fear, goaded on by the indications of the swift approach of an enemy whose touch was death, became wild beasts. The smile kindled by the sallies of wit was transformed into the scowl of despair. The laugh was supplanted by the howlings and oaths of desperation. The hands which had applauded bacame weapons of onslaught and ruin. Every man's hand was against his brother, and in the hideous strife all were jammed and glued into a palpitating, shriecking, purposoices mass. Some escaped by an early flight; all might have been delivered. But, because unreason prevailed and an ignorant neglect of order, the majority of that unfortunate throng died horribly.
Whether suffocation did the work, which is probable, or physical pressure destroyed the mechanical action of the organs of life, or the yielding of the burning floes opened the abyss of fiery death, will never be known. The charred and disfigured remains furnish but one brief fact -- they died.
The Brooklyn Eagle New York 1876-12-07