Natchez, MS Rhythm Night Club Fire, Apr 1940

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Dancers Trapped As Spanish Moss Causes Holocaust

Only One Entrance To Building; Survivors Tell Tales Of Horror; Pockets Of Corpses Pilfered

By James Marlow
NATCHEZ, Miss., April 24 (AP) -- The death list today mounted to the staggering toll of 212 in a Spanish-moss fed fire which swept through the Rhythm Night Club here last night stampeding 300 negro dancers into a holocaust.
All the dead were negroes.
Of the survivors eight remained in the hospital in critical condition and two score others who applied for treatment in the two crowded hospitals were later sent to their homes.
An attache of Charity Hospital declared that 30 or 40 or the victims were brought to the institution for treatment and that about 15 of them died en route.
Eleven victims died in the hospital after being treated. Others for whom there was no accommodation were treated and sent home some of them in serious condition.
The dead were counted by Deputy Sheriff J. R. BROWN while the scores of seared bodies mostly young men and young women, were laid out in rows in three undertaking establishments and a garage adjacent to the dance hall.

Relatives Horror-stricken
Meantime, horror-stricken and weeping relatives milled about the scene, identifying relatives who were victims of the disaster.
Survivors told tales of horror of the fire which started in a maze of overhanging dry moss in the hall formerly built for a blacksmith shop and later turned into a dance hall at fifty cents a ticket.
The blaze started near the front entrance of the building and flared in a flash down the moss to the far end of the 200-foot deep hall where the orchestra was playing a jazz tune.
At the outbreak of screaming the dancers thought a fight had started in the far end of the hall. But within a minute, survivors said, the flames flashed through the moss down the entire length of the hall and enveloped the dancers in an inferno of flame and heat.

Dancers Stampede
Trapped by the fire, some of the dancers stampeded through the flames in the front of the building where a small door, the only exit, was located while others herded into the rear around the orchestra stand and the bar where they were burned or suffocated to death by flaming decorations dropping on them in the intense heat.

Survivors Tell of Fight At Natchez Fire
Victims Used Pop Bottles, Fists, Seeking To Flee Burning Night Club.

NATCHEZ, Miss., April 25 (AP) -- Pop bottles, fists, clawing hands and the crash of heavy shoulders into yielding bodies -- were all used by the doomed in the Rhythm Night Club fire which took 198 negro lives.
Eyewitnesses and burned survivors told how the victims -- men, woman and children -- who had gone to the night club to make merry with WALTER BARNES name band from Chicago battled for life in the smoke and flames.
Blocked from escape by the racing fire which burst out suddenly early Wednesday around the only exit, a door, in the hall covered with galvanized iron and with windows barred against gatecrashers, the victims stampeded to the rear only to die in heaps against a wall.
When the 15 minute blaze was extinguished in the place which had become a roasting oven encased in iron, burned and lacerated dead and dying were found with cloths torn and piled upon one another, broken bottles on the floor and women's clothes scattered everywhere.
CHARLIE HALL, a club bartender who battered his way to safety through a boarded-up window, said:
"Lot of them fought. They screamed and they yelled and they fought with their fists, pop bottles, with anything they could lay hold of. I got out through that window and dragged a woman with me."
WALTER AUDREY, another bartender, who escaped through the window, too, said he first heard screams at the front of the building, thought it was a fight, paid no attention, and then looked up to see smoke racing over the rafters draped with long-dry Spanish moss.
"Everybody was running toward the rear of the bar where I was," he said. "The place began to fill with smoke. The band stand was right next to the bar. (WALTER BARNES and most of his musicians died in the fire). They were all rushing toward the band stand. When I got through the window and I turned and helped half a dozen other people who got jammed in the window trying to get through."

The Delta Democrat-Times Greenville Mississippi 1940-04-24

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