Boyertown, PA Rhoades Opera House Terrible Fire, Jan 1908




Almost Impossible to Identify the Dead -- Said That Exit Doors Were Securely Bolted.

Special to The New York Times.
Boyertown, Penn., Jan. 14 -- Of the 175 persons believed to have perished in the fire and panic at Rhoades's Opera House last night, 167 bodies have been recovered. Of these 45 have been identified at a late hour to-night.
The proportion of victims was about nine females to one male. In almost every case the upper portions of the bodies were burned away, the lower portions below the waist being intact, showing that the memgers of the audience were wedged in, the flames sweeping over them and killing them as they were caught.
H. W. FISHER, the man who had charge of the stereopticon machine, the tank of which exploded and started the fire, accuses himself bitterly of having been the cause of the fire and panic. The Coroner will arrest FISHER and hold him pending the result of the inquest.
FISHER said:
"I must have turned the wrong valve. There was a long drawn out hissing sound that frightened the woman and children. Several of them jumped up and screamed and ran toward the stage. The curtain was down. I don't know what happened next."
"I was caught in a mob of crazy people. I was knocked down and trampled on. I struggled along. I was badly burned."
"I feel that I am responsible for this terrible affair."
It was told to-day that when the hissing sound was heard by the actors on the stage, some of them lifted the curtain to see what caused it. The heavy pole at the bottom of the curtain knocked over the tank of kerosene which supplied the footlights. These lamps at once exploded, and a sheet of flame ran up the flimsy curtain and the filmy[sic] scenery.
Men jumped from their seats, and, seizing chairs, batted down women and children in their rush for safety. It was the battle of the strong.
Whole Families Wiped Out.
Piled in a mass seven feet deep are the charred remains of at least eighty bodies, which it is believed will have to be buried in a common grave. WHile whole families in some instances have been wiped out, yet the members of the community were so closely related that those who are not mourning the loss of parents and children are saddened by the death of kinsmen and blood relations.
While the calcium lighting outfit was the cause of a slight panic, it was not the fault of this mechanism that caused so much desolation. It was the upsetting of the kerosene tank feeding the footlights with oil which set fire to the building and cremated the spectators.
Coroner ROBERT E. STRAUSSER of Reading and Burgess D. R. KOHLER of Boyertown to-night made the rounds of the improvised morgues and counted the charred bodies. The tally at the end of the inspection showed that 167 bodies had been removed.
The officials believe that there are more bodies hidden by debris. It is expected by Burgess KOHLER that the death roll will reach 175.
Coroner STAUSSER stated to-night that he will institute a searching inquiry into the cause of the fire.
Say Doors Were Bolted.
Survivors charged to-day that the swinging exit doors leading from the rear of the opera house auditorium on the second floor were bolted when the cry of fire was raised and the rush to the doors began.
It was at the head of the flight of stairs guarded by the swinging exit doors that the loss of life was greatest.
Around the head of the four-foot-wide steps the dead were piled five and six deep.
The charge that the exit doors were bolted is being rigidly investigated. Several of those who escaped from the auditorium say that the doorkeeper became so interested in the tableaus that he bolted the doors, to prevent entrance of a crowd of Italians who had assembled about the entrance, and took a rear seat, where he could enjoy the show.
When the lamps exploded many who knew of the small, narrow stairway at one side of the stage turned in that direction, and were confronted with a solid sheet of rearing fire.
Fight at the Door.
It was at the doorway leading to Philadelphia Avenue that the whirlpool of humanity began a fight for life. This was the door said to be bolted.
The narrow four-foot aisles were clogged with men turned brutes, women fighting and tearing at the faces of those in front, and children, screaming, kicking and twisting.
The middle section of the Opera House, that part between the two aisles called the reserved seat section because the chairs are more comfortable and are screwed to the floor, soon emptied its contents into the gorged aisles. The sections to the right and left, in which were seats of frail construction, and which were not fastened to the floor and could be moved about at will, became battlefields.
The crowds in these cheaper sections tripped over the loose chairs while trying to get into the aisles. The chairs, tripping up the maddened throng, slid along the floor, lost their regularity of form, and made the sections to right and left of the centre a maze in which many fell and never rose.
Some one remembered the fire escapes built up on both sides of the building and shouted out the knowledge. Those struggling about the entrance door turned and braved the flames, which were sweeping over the ceiling and lapping at the woodwork along the side walls.
The windows which gave access fo the fire-escapes became scenes of minor fights.
Men Felled Women with Chairs.
Men used the chairs which had entangled their feet as weapons with which to clear a way to the open. Several women say that they saw men respected in the community raise the chairs high over their heads and bring them down with crushing force on the heads of women and children. These men are reported among the missing, and probably died in the flames or were suffocated.
The REV. ADAM M. WEBER, pastor of the St. John's Lutheran Church, who with his daughters, was seated in the front row of the auditorium, endeavored to stay the panic. He shouted for the people to take things coolly and to file out without shoving or pushing. His words were not heard above the uproar. The curtain had by this time burned away, and the minister leaped to the stage and tried to right the kerosene tank.
He was fearfully burned. He turned to protect his children and found them gone. He waited in the hall until only fifty uninjured persons were left. Then he climbed down the fire escape. Later he recovered one of his daughters. The other is reported among the missing.

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