ABOVE: Patrons try to flee the Iroquois Theater fire.
IN THIS DATE in 1903, eighteen-year-old Will McLaughlin saved 17 to 20 people from certain death in a Chicago theater fire.
Billed as “Absolutely Fireproof” in advertisements, the Iroquois Theater ignited during a matinee attended by 1,900 people, mostly women and children. Outside the building, McLaughlin saw the flames, rushed inside, 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.
McLaughlin then helped 17 to 20 women and children cross the plank and reach safety in a nearby building.
McLaughlin tried to join them, but 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.