ONE HUNDRED and ten years ago today, eighteen-year-old Will McLaughlin rushed into a burning theater and saved more than a dozen women and children before plunging to his death. Billed as “Absolutely Fireproof” in advertisements, Chicago’s Iroquois Theater caught fire during a Saturday matinee attended by 1,900 people, mostly women and children.
On spotting the flames, McLaughlin rushed into the building and scaled two flights of stairs to the balcony. Opening the door to a fire escape, he found that workmen had installed no stairs, so he found a long plank that extended from the fire escape landing to the law library across the alley. He then helped 17 to 20 women and children cross the plank and reach safety in a nearby building.
McLaughlin never joined them. Flames had weakened the plank and it couldn’t bear his weight. While trying to cross, he plunged to the pavement below and died the next day, one of 600-some casualties of the deadliest theater fire in U.S. history.