Theatre Fire Kills Hundreds In Vienna – 12/8/1881

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Sometimes, society does not think of innovations that can protect lives until an event occurs that causes individuals to be injured or killed. Safety features, for example, have improved over time but it usually happens when something draws the attention of others to either improve on current standard or having to create a new one. The other element in guaranteeing a safety features success is following directions correctly or simply remembering to use the safety feature itself. One such lesson happened over a century ago in Vienna, Austria as a fire broke out at the Ring Theater on December 8th, 1881 that injures hundreds of individuals while killing roughly 620 people.

During this time period, this ornate and luxurious theater would host the most well-known performances. The opera Les Contes d’Hoffman written by Jacques Offenbach was well-received by both the middle and wealthy class in Vienna. The second night of the performance was on December 8th and the custom that was followed during this time was theater patrons who were rich that usually sit at front close to the stage would not show up until right before the performance would begin; the two balconies would fill up first at the Ring. A stagehand used a long-arm igniter to start the row of lights that used gas above the stage; tragically, he accidentally also ignited a few of the prop clouds that were over the stage hanging.

The flames rapidly ignited the stage curtain; however, the fire procedures established by the theater were ignored. The theater’s fire hoses that were available were not used and the iron fire curtain that is used to stop the fire failed to be lowered. What made the situation worse was that the stage managers shut of the gas completely in their panic thus all light in the theater had been shut off. By this time, everything became chaotic as the balconies became congested as everyone had jammed the exits while the fire brigade had arrived with ladders but they were not long enough to even reach the first balcony. Even though an attempt was made to create a net out of a curtain, some individuals plunged from the balconies; the jumpers ended up not only being killed but also on the ground floor the attempt ultimately crushed individuals there.

According to observers, safety nets were finally brought in to help people in the balconies jump safely; roughly 100 individuals were rescued. The disaster was concluding when the Royal Family of Austria arrived and quickly started to gather relief funds for those who were injured or killed and their families. Seeing the hundreds of dead bodies, Crown Prince Rudolf became emotional and cried. Somewhere between 620 and 850 individuals was the estimated toll of death.

What was left of the building was totaled to make room for the Suhnhof building. Sadly, this memorial became demolished when Vienna in World War II was bombed and at present, at the site resides a police station.

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