Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Precious Blood Church Fire Holyoke, Ma. May 27th, 1875.

Precious Blood Church Fire
May 27th, 1875
Holyoake, Massachusetts

In the sixty-three years and change between The Richmond Theater Fire and the fire at Precious Blood Catholic Church, in Holyoke, Massachusetts America learned how to have man-made disasters. It wasn't something we wanted to learn how to do by any means, but the Mid-Nineteenth Century's run-away advances in transportation really didn't give us much choice in the matter. While the steam engine shortened epic journeys of days or weeks into trips of a few hours by train or a couple of days by steamboat it also brought with it new and horrific ways to kill dozens of people at a time if something went wrong. And, sadly, back in the day things regularly went wrong. Steamboats could collide, sink, their boilers could explode, and they could burn. Trains could collide, derail, run off of bridges, have bridges collapse out from under them...and they could burn. (See a pattern developing here?)

In fact, most of the country's first major man-made disasters were transportation-related. The largest loss of life in a maritime accident on U.S. waters...and worst transportation disaster of any kind in U.S. history...was caused by an under-maintained, badly repaired boiler exploding and setting an overcrowded steamboat on fire. Death and disaster also bitch-slapped the fast growing railroad industry...several times. The year 1853 became known as 'The Year The Horrors Began' when a train went through an open drawbridge, resulting  in forty-six fatalities and kicking off a string of deadly railroad accidents, averaging about one or two a year, that lasted well into the Twentieth Century. Until steam heat replaced coal or wood stoves in each car, fire was a dreaded part of almost every major train wreck.

Thing is, at the same time we were having a horrible string of luck when it came to transportation disasters, we were also enjoying a six decade run of good luck when it came to catastrophic loss of life structure fires. This luck was tenuous, at best, and was definitely based on a technicality or two, but still, the fact remains that during the six decade and change period following the Richmond Theater Fire we didn't have a single structure fire that caused a catastrophic loss of life. Not. A. One.

 Oh, we still had a couple of catastrophic loss-of-life disasters that involved just a single building...they just weren't fires, or maybe a better way to put that is that they weren't purely fire disasters. (Aaaand, this is where our technicalities come in.)

Confused yet? Read On.

By the mid-19th century, theaters and churches were no longer the only venues where a large number of people regularly gathered in a single building.  The industrial revolution brought with it the construction of some huge factories, each one employing hundreds of people. These humongous heavy timber and brick buildings were virtual warehouses of fire and safety hazards, making them ripe for disaster, and all but inevitably it didn't take but so long for one to occur.

That disaster was the 1860 Pemberton Mill Collapse, which, to this day, is still listed as the worst industrial accident in Massachusetts history. It was also one of the first man-caused incidents of any kind in the U.S. to claim over a hundred lives. Dozens were killed in the initial collapse of the building, then a rescue worker accidentally broke an oil lantern during the rescue operation, and the resulting fire killed many of the trapped mill-workers who hadn't died in the initial collapse.  This didn't happen until hours after the collapse, though, and the incident missed being a pure fire disaster because fact, most...of the deaths weren't caused by fire..

Then in 1870 a third floor courtroom in the Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond collapsed into the senate floor during a trial that had been convened to decide a controversial and hotly contested mayoral election, killing sixty-two people. Only the fact that it happened during daylight hours on a warm spring day kept that incident from being a repeat of the Pemberton Mill Disaster. Had it happened during the winter, when stoves would have been cranking to heat the courtroom, or at night, when gas lights would have been glowing, that death toll could have been at least twice as high..and it would have still been a collapse with fire rather than a pure structure fire.

Both of those incidents caused massive loss of life, both were tragic, but, again, neither was a pure fire disaster. Most of the deaths at the Pemberton Mill weren't fire deaths, and the Virginia State Capitol Collapse never involved fire at all. While both were single-building incidents that caused catastrophic loss of life, they weren't structure fires that caused catastrophic....generally defined as a death toll of 25 or more... loss of life. Our very shaky luck RE: Catastrophic structure fires still held.

That's not saying that there were no catastrophic loss of life fires during that period...there were, but all of them involved areas measured in square miles rather than square feet. We burned large swaths of several cities (New York several times and Chicago most famously) with high death tolls in several of those fires, and we burned a large hunk of one entire state (At the same time Chicago was burning, no less) with a huge toll in lives, but we didn't see a single fire involving only a single building that caused the loss of more than twenty lives.

We came close a couple of times, most particularly with a pair of tenement fires that occurred in New York City with-in two months of each other in early 1860, killing thirty people...mostly women and children...between them. That is still a tragic, heartbreaking loss of life by any measure, and these two fires brought about massive changes in the law...they were the reason fire escapes were an iconic feature of New York apartment buildings for over a century...but the death toll in these two fires was still well short of the seventy-two lives lost in the Richmond Theater Fire.

All of the elements were in place for a repeat of  the Richmond Theater Fire, though, and had been since that night after Christmas in 1811. By 1875, while developments in central heating were being made, both lighting and heating in buildings was generally still decidedly old-tech, utilizing either oil or gas lamps and wood or coal stoves. With all of these ignition sources inside occupied buildings loaded down with and constructed from combustible materials, working structure fires were a pretty regular occurrence. And, as the population grew and more homes were built, multiple-fatality house fires also became more common. Somehow, though, the nation's luck...based on a technicality though it may have avoiding catastrophic loss of life in single building structure fires manged to hold.

But the clock was ticking...and when the next major loss of life fire occurred, it would seemingly open the flood gates, because after 1875 not a single decade has passed without at least one, and usually several, catastrophic loss of life building fires. When the Richmond Theater burned in 1811 there were really only two major types of venues where a large crowd regularly gathered in a relatively small area...theaters and churches. With the first catastrophic loss of life single building structure fire in the U.S. occurring in a theater, it was somehow inevitable that the second...Sixty-three years, five months and one day later...would be at a church.


To take a look at this one, we need to slip back to a warm early summer evening in 1875 in the historic city of  Holyoke, Massachusetts. Holyoke is situated about ninety miles west of Boston and nine miles due north of Springfield, hard by the fast-flowing Connecticut River and was the largest producer of paper in the U.S.for nearly a century. Between the river providing free, unlimited power for paper and textile mills, and the city's grid street system (Rare back then in New England), Holyoke was just about made to be an industrial, really, it was literally planned as an industrial city. The paper industry, in particular, built a slew of huge mills, with textiles running a close second in square footage. Of course, to run all of these these mills, they needed people.
Thousands of workers flocked to jobs in Holyoke, many of them French-Canadian, and a huge percentage of them were Roman Catholic.
Up until 1869, they were welcomed by the large Irish-Catholic parish of St Jeromes Catholic Church, and they were still welcome there after that year...but they decided to split off on their own. No bad blood was involved, rather the French Canadian Catholic population had swelled to a thousand plus, so they decided to form their own parish. They claimed South Holyoke as their territory, named their parish The Church Of The Precious Blood, chose The Rev. Andre B. Dufresne from St. Hyacinth, Canada as their first priest, and set out to find a site for a church.

They chose a block in a heavily industrial area of the city, bordered by Cabot, South East, Park (Clemente Street today), and Hamilton Streets, and immediately built a wooden church that would serve them until a larger, more appropriately magnificent brick church could be built next door. When I say 'Immediately', BTW, I mean just that. Construction started on the first of December of 1869, and the building was dedicated on New Years Day, 1870. So, needless to say, it was all but literally, thrown up. Of course, it was built as a temporary building, and they weren't planning on using it for more than a year or so.

The wooden building, temporary though it may have been, wasn't exactly tiny, measuring 96' by 46 feet...this was including the rectory, BTW. The sanctuary also included a 'U' shaped balcony, hugging the east, north (Front) and west sides of the building, that doubled the buildings capacity to 800 or so people. This balcony, BTW, will figure heavily in events to follow. As people arrived, they entered the church through one of three front entrances, all of which led into narrow vestibules which, in turn, emptied into the sanctuary. The middle entrance was six feet wide, guarded by a pair of three foot wide double doors, while both the east and west entrances were single-doored and 44 inches wide. All of these doors, BTW, probably opened inward.

Location-wise, it was at the intersection of Cabot and South East Streets, fronting on Cabot Street, with the new church under construction immediately to the west of it. Following are some Satellite images and illustrations of just where the church was and how it was probably situated on the lot, as well as pictures of both the old and new churches.

Satellite view of Holyoke with the block where the church was located...shown in better detail below...circled in red.

Satellite view of the area circled in the satellite view of Holyoke, with the block where the church was located...bounded by  Clemente Street (Park Street in 1875), Cabot Street, East Street, and Hamilton Street, out-lined in red.  The approximate locations of the new church and the old church are also indicated...the old church in red and the new church in blue. The churches actually fronted on Cabot Street, with the old church sitting at the intersection of Cabot and East Streets. I've also labeled the former site of Park Street School, which served as a temporary morgue after the fire, and was where families IDed the bodies of their loved ones.
A 3D View of the block the church once sat on, with the sites of both the new and old churches labeled as well as the site of Park Street School, where the temporary morgue was located. The brick building just west of the former site of the new church, at Cabot and Clemente, was the church rectory, and was built at about the same time as the church, while the larger brick building at the south end of the block...across Hamilton Street from the school site...was once part of the catholic school affiliated with Precious Blood Church. 

Another 3D aerial view from the front of the former church sites...the sites actually sat on top of a low, hill that sloped sharply towards the north, east, and west. The ground between the buildings was level, and that, along with the fact that the new church was being built so close to the wooden building, allowed the people trapped on the west side of the gallery to use the construction scaffolding  for the new church to escape the fire. The turreted building is the former church rectory, built about the same time as the new church.
Cabot and East Streets today...trees hide the former rectory.

A pair of views of the new Precious Blood Catholic Church, opened in 1878, three years after the fire. This was a truly magnificent building, and was at least three times the size of the building that burned. Take a look at the view of the church on the right side...while it's pretty low quality, it shows how the new church...and by association, the old church...were positioned on the block.  The intersection visible at the mid-bottom of the frame is Cabot and East Streets, the church fronts on Cabot.. The domed building on the far side of the church in the rectory, which was built at about the same time as the new church,  still exists and is visible in the satellite views I've posted. The church that burned would have been located on the vacant plot of ground between the new church and East Street. The new church was being built hard by the wooden building, so close that trapped church-goers in the balcony on the west side of the church were able to use construction scaffolding to climb from the balcony windows and then to the ground.  You can also see how the ground sloped away from the front and east side of the old church if you look closely enough. Both churches were actually built on the top of a low, flat topped hill, with the ground sloping down to the streets on three sides.

A contemporary sketch of Precious Blood Church before the fire.  While the descriptions of the church I read described it as having three front entrances, with the center one being double width, this sketch doesn't show it for some reason. Given the number of people in the building when the fire started, and the number who actually did make it out, that big central entrance almost had to have been there.

The building was built on the top of a low hill, with the ground sloping away from the building sharply on the north (Front and east sides of the building. The full width wooden steps at the front of the building took care of access, of course, but the sharp drop off on the east side added close to another story to the drop from those second story windows, making them all but useless for escape from the fire.

Floor plan of the church, with the vestry alcove, where the fire started, and the foot of the stairs, where the majority of the bodies were found, both labeled. Take a look at the access paths to the top of that imagine trying to get to and down those steps in a fire.

The church sat at the corner of Cabot and East Streets, so East Street would have been parallel to the right side of the church, and Cabot Street would have been parallel to the front of the church.

The east front entrance doubled as the entrance to the balcony. If you wanted to sit in the balcony you turned right immediately as you walked in the door, climbed a four foot wide enclosed stairway, which emptied into a small vestibule with a blank wall directly in front of you and a doorway to your left. You turned left as you reached the top of the steps, walked through that doorway, and you were in the gallery. The gallery looked to have been about ten or twelve feet deep, with four rows of pews, separated from both the exterior wall and the half wall that separated those seated in the balcony from a drop into the sanctuary by a narrow passageway.. Once you got off of those stairs, you could, of course, go either left or right, and either work your way along the narrow passage between the last pew and outside wall or use one of the aisles to reach the similarly narrow passage between the first pew and the half wall to get to wherever you wanted to sit.  Keep that lay-out in mind when you get a few more paragraphs in, and imagine trying to navigate it calmly when you can't see, can't breathe, and have several hundred other people get through the same narrow, twisting passageway. 

Even with a capacity of 800 people the wooden church wasn't anywhere near big enough as the French-Canadian Catholic population of Holyoke was growing steadily, reaching a total of around 2500 by mid-1875, They would absolutely need that new brick church. So an architect was hired, plans drawn up and construction started on what would be a magnificent and beautiful brick church immediately to the west of the wooden building. Annnnnd...the economy chose that exact time to go into the toilet, slowing construction to a much of a crawl that by May 27th, 1875 the basement of the new church had been partially dug and some of the exterior framing and brickwork had been started, and that was it.

May 27th of 1875 was the third Thursday after Trinity Sunday, making it the day of the celebration of Corpus Christi, a Roman Catholic feast commemorating the institution of the Holy Eucharist as the Sacrament, and that evening at seven o'clock there was to be a short Vesper service to mark the occasion. The Reverend Dufresne was planning on being finished with the service by 7:30, but short as it was to be, the church was decorated to the nines, including the dozens of candles that religious ceremonies in all denominations entail, along with delicate lace draperies surrounding the Statue of the Blessed Virgin, which was ensconced, if a contemporary illustration was accurate, in an alcove set high on the south wall, near the southeast corner of the building, which would put it to the left of the alter as you face it.  The statue was apparently also surrounded by the aforementioned lighted candles. As seven o'clock drew near the good Reverend and several other church members were opening the tall windows that lined both the east and west walls so they could catch a breeze during the service. No one noticed the candle flames guttering in the breeze, or the draperies moving gracefully as the same breeze hit them.

 By the time the church bells bonged out the call to worship at a few minutes before seven the church was just about packed. As anyone who's ever experienced a sermon inside an un-airconditioned church during the summer can tell you, absolutely nothing can get much hotter inside any faster than a crowded church on a hot, or even warm, day, and The Church Of The Precious Blood was no exception. While the classic church-provided hand fan that we all remember from our childhood...the ones with religious images on the front, and funeral home ads on the back...weren't a thing yet, hand fans in general were, and dozens of them had already been deployed by worshipers who were engaging in the age-old practice of community gossip that takes place to this day every Sunday morning in every church in the world. Little Old Ladies held court in groups as men discussed company politics and kids became cherubic angels under the watchful eyes of their parents.

The Good Reverend mounted the alter, and the buzz of pre-service  gossip and conversation stilled as the service started. Those on the east side of the building were enjoying a good breeze that occasionally made it's way in through the open windows, but those on the west side were out of luck...their windows were blocked by the unfinished brickwork and scaffolding hard by the west side of the building...and entire squadrons of the afore-mentioned hand fans were likely whipping back and forth in front of dozens of perspiring faces.  A couple of the worshipers may have noticed the breeze moving the draperies surrounding the Statue of the Blessed Virgin, but thought nothing of it, other than envying those close enough to the east windows to enjoy it. At least they thought nothing of it until, just before the end of the service, the bottom edge of the drapery lifted high enough to come in contact with the candle flame.

Rev. Dufresne was just about beginning to wind the short service down when a particularly strong breeze whispered it's way through the east windows and got up under the drapery, billowing it upward and outward and waving it like a flag...right into the candles.  The bottom edges fluttered through the candle flames, which at first danced across the bottom hem of the drapery and then, as the breeze died and the drape dropped, climbed the folds of fabric like a shot.

A contemporary sketch...and, needless to say, artists rendition...of the very start of the fire. The artist even included the young girl trying to beat out the flames with her fan.

One young lady, sitting near the southeast end of the balcony, spotted the fire almost as it started and hustled to the half-wall, leaning across it as far as she could and swatting at the flames with her fan as she tried desperately to smother them, but they basically just laughed at her, probably lighting her fan off while they were at it. Less than a minute into the incident the fire was already too well advanced to just manually smother, grabbing hold of the flammable accouterments inside the alcove as well as the painted walls and turning the statue's alcove into it's own tiny room and contents fire in a matter of seconds.

The Reverend heard the commotion and, at first suspecting a couple of unruly teenagers or children, turned with a stern look on his face to instead see flames rolling out of the alcove and the burning folds of the drapery piled in a flaming mass on the floor. The young lady had stopped trying to swat out the fire...her fan was probably burning on the floor along with the draperies... and the rest of the congregation was more than aware of the fast growing fire. He turned towards his flock.

"Stay calm people!!.."  The crowd was growing restive. Someone threw the big double doors of the main entrance open.  "It's not that bad..." Flames were out of the alcove and beginning to climb the wall as smoke rolled upward and gathered in a malignant cloud at the peak of the roof. Several people in the back pews...near the main entrance...were already heading for the exit. One of the other entrances banged open...

The fire was beyond any hope of control by then, less then two minutes into the incident. While this was essentially a temporary building, it was still a Catholic Church, and was as lovely inside as they could make it. This loveliness was dooming them. The walls were painted wood...dry wood...and paints have always been flammable. As the flames rolled up and out of the statue's alcove, they shoved a column of super heated air up the wall ahead of them, preheating the wall to the ignition temps of both paint and wood, so flames practically shot up towards the roof, thirty or so feet above. Only a couple of minutes into the fire, a classic 'V' shaped column of flame was climbing the wall and beginning to roll across the underside of the roof. The building was quickly filling with smoke, thick and acrid and suffocating, probably banking down to head level in the balcony within the first three or so minutes, and continuing to drop as flames ran the inverted 'V' of the ridge of the roof as if it was an inverted gutter.

The worshipers on the first floor had three front exits to choose from, as well as a rear exit...probably through the rectory... but those in the balcony quickly realized they had a problem. Not only was the smoke banking down, so was the heat, and the upper portion of the church was getting hot and doing so quickly. A horizontal column of fire was rolling along the roof's inverted 'V' like a runaway train as well as mushrooming downward along roof boards, preheating the balcony and everything...and every it. Visibility was dropping, heat was rising, and breathing was becoming more difficult by the second as panic began to set in. Four hundred people needed to navigate a narrow, crooked path to reach and descend a single stairway then make a hard left and go out of a single doorway while a couple of hundred other people were trying to exit that very same doorway, all of them in a hurry to get out of the building. It became a deadly repeat of the Richmond Theater.

Another artists rendition that shows the panic inside the church as the fire worsened. He used a lot of artistic license, BTW...the stairway to the gallery was actually enclosed, and he also has it in the wrong place. You are apparently looking towards the front of the church here, so the stairway should be to the right of the frame.

He's not exaggerating the level of panic, though...people were jumping from the balcony, though it looks like he may have exaggerated the distance of the drop to the sanctuary by a bit.

Like the boxes in The Richmond Theater, those seated in church's balcony had to navigate a fairly narrow passage between the pews and the wall of the church to reach the stairs, and again like the theater, two groups of panicked people coming from two (Or more) different directions, after winding around several turns, had to fight their way onto that single stairway. And, again much like the Richmond Theater, those who did make it onto the stairway crowded into the terrified throng on the first floor exiting through the very same entrance they were trying to reach.

When the two panicked throngs met on the first floor they became jammed up in the east vestibule and the line of worshipers between the pews and the wall on all three sides of the balcony came to a sudden stop, even as the people in those lines coughed and gagged on smoke and baked in the heat of the flames running the roof and north wall of the church. Their panic went off the charts as flames mushroomed downward into the balcony.

The worshipers on the west side took to the windows and climbed out onto the scaffolding surrounding the new church, the calmer among them handing children out to those who'd already escaped even as the more panicked among them likely trampled those same children as they tried to escape. The church was built on the top of a low, flat-topped hill, so the strip of land between the two buildings was level, and the drop from the west windows didn't look that high for those who didn't want to try to reach the scaffolding. A slew of people just dropped out of the windows. Some of them ended up with broken legs or trashed knees when they landed and had to be dragged from between the two buildings, but that was a far, far better fate than burning to death.

The people on the east side of the church also made for the windows...but they were out of luck. They didn't have a scaffolding to climb out on and because of the slope of that hill the drop from their windows was closer to three stories. Several people fought their way towards the half wall, some literally climbing over pews to reach it, and jumped down into the sanctuary, most landing on pews when they did so. I have a feeling a good number were injured, or worse, in the jump.

 Five or six minutes into the fire, flames had probably involved at least half of the ceiling...actually the underside of the roof...and had entered at least the south east end of the balcony. The west side of the balcony was emptying quickly, thanks to the windows and scaffolding, and some of the people in the north side of the balcony, at the front of the church, had also gone out of the windows, but the east side of the balcony had become a jammed mass of screaming, terrified humanity, barely moving at all...and it only took one or two people to stop all motion.

The main floor of the sanctuary had almost, but not quite emptied...that six foot wide main entrance had saved hundreds...but many of the people on the east side of the sanctuary did what was instinctive and natural and headed for the closer and narrower east exit...the same one everyone in the balcony was trying to use...and the two masses of people were both trying to go through the exact same forty-four inch wide door at the exact same time, and in the process, only jamming each other up.

And then someone fell. The first one was probably in the doorway, only feet from safety,  and when that one went down, dozens of other panic-stricken people tried to climb over them, then each other, and people tripped and went down like dominoes...and still people kept coming, trying to climb over the growing pile of humanity in the doorway until first the doorway, then the east vestibule was an unbreakable log-jam of bodies, five or six feet high and all still alive for the momentthe pile of terrified people growing by the second with those at the bottom of the pile becoming more inextricably stuck as the pile grew.

Artists rendition of the crush inside the stairwell. This is probably pretty accurate, as well as far more graphic than modern news photography. Newspapers of that era were far, far more graphic in both written description and art and illustration of incidents. Artists drew often very detailed sketches of incident scenes and aftermaths, and in the days before photography took over, they allowed their imaginations to run wild when illustrating a story.

This human logjam was like a living...and of dominoes as movement in the stairwell suddenly stopped, and everyone in that narrow, confined, and tilted space tried desperately to climb over everyone else. Meanwhile up in the east side of the gallery,  panic reined, as the upper part of the church filled with fire, and those left alive and able to do so broke and ran, either going out of the windows or jumping over the half-wall...neither option was likely to end well for the jumper.

 It was probably just about this time...less than ten minutes into the fire...that dense, black smoke and intense, oven-grade heat slammed down on the upper half of the church like the hand of death as the underside of the roof and the rafters flashed over, turning the entire attic into an inverted cauldron of roiling, surging flames and filling the building with dense, hot, acrid smoke. The balcony level flashed over only seconds later as everything in the upper half of the church reached it's ignition temperature, and flames curled out of the second floor windows. Fire had probably burned through the roof on the south end of the church, rolling up into the column of black smoke that was roiling skyward and lighting it up from the inside, painting it orange as it danced and writhed. Anyone not out of the sanctuary and gallery was doomed.

Less than ten minutes into the fire the inside of the church was a flaming charnal house, and the ground surrounding the church...especially on the east side of the building ...wasn't much better, with a dozen or more people who'd jumped from the balcony windows lying on the ground, some of them writhing and moaning in pain, others lying in that flat, still pose that can only mean death. One of the people who'd gotten out early on, and was able to keep a clear head on their shoulders high-tailed it to the nearest fire alarm box...because I'm pretty sure Holyoke had a telegraph alarm system by 1875...and, while looking back over their shoulder at the flames rolling from the building's second floor windows, yanked down on the hook.

An 1871 Amoskeag horse-drawn 2nd size steam pumper, which had a pump capacity of 700 GPM. This is the type of rig that Holyoke's firefighter rolled in with on the Precious Blood Fire. These rigs could supply two to three 2 1/2 inch hand lines. The horse would have probably been unhitched and taken to an area a bit away from the fire, where they were safe from injury.

 I believe that back then Holyoke's fire department had three or maybe four stations, all with horse-drawn steamers and hose wagons, and one with a horse drawn ladder. The department was also what we'd call a combination department today, with a couple of full time salaried firefighters at the stations and paid on-call firefighters who responded to the station or scene when a call came in, so it's pretty likely that when the gongs started banging out the box number in the stations, a larger bell or two...maybe city hall, and one or two on opposite ends of the city...started doing so as well.

By pure chance B. J. Mullin, Holyoke's Chief Engineer, as the Chief of Department was called back then, was enjoying an evening stroll near the South Holyoke station, which was first due on the church. When the bells hit, horses at the South Holyoke station trotted from their stalls to their places in front of rigs as drivers and officers and engineers pounded down the stairs to the apparatus floor (The iconic fireman's pole wouldn't be invented for another three years.). The crews swung doors open and were surprised when Chief Mullin ran in, probably shouting that they had one hell of a column of smoke over towards Park Street School and the new Catholic church, and to wait for him, he was going to send in the general alarm.  Chief Mullin ran to the watch desk and started tapping in the general alarm as the rigs' drivers dropped yokes and harnesses and snapped quick-connects and engineers shoved quick starting, hot burning oil soaked waste and kindling into fireboxes, following with a lighted match or taper. Chief Mullin trotted over to the hose wagon, probably climbing aboard next to the driver. Most likely the hose wagon rolled first, after a couple of on-call men who lived near-by also pulled themselves aboard the rig, followed by the big Amoskeag  steamer, smoke rolling from it's stack as they turned towards the orange-bottomed column of smoke that was already high and wide in the early evening sky.

At homes throughout Holyoke ears pricked at the first 'BONG!!!' of the citywide bells. Families fell volunteers' families do when tones hit on the fire radio to this men counted out the strokes of the bell, waiting until the second round started, knowing the general location of the fire from the box number...

Wives called quick 'Be careful, honey's' as kids asked 'Where is it, Dad???' and I can just about bet that at least one of the guys, upon looking in the direction of the box and seeing the column of smoke already pushing skyward, orange tinged in the slowly fading daylight,  said 'We got us one!!!...

That scene had already been played out for all of the South Holyoke station's firefighters, but when the bells started banging out a the general alarm bell code, followed by the same box only a minute or so later,  the rest of the city's firefighters absolutely knew they had 'em one. The on-call men living closest to the stations probably met the rigs on the ramp and clamored aboard the hose wagons and the city's single ladder as the horses pawed the cobblestone street and pulled at the bits.

"Go!!! Go!! "  The horses didn't need much urging...this is what they did...and less than a minute after the first bong of gong and fire bell, steamers, hose wagons, and the ladder were pounding towards Park Street, hooves kicking sparks on the cobblestones as the apparatus bells clanged. They knew it was going to be a long night...the church was in an industrial area of the city, so with that column of smoke coupled with the general alarm going in immediately after the initial alarm ('The Chief must've been close by...' likely went through more than one head as they pounded towards the church.) whatever they had it was not going to be minor.

No one could even conceive of the nightmare they'd roll in on

Fire was blowing out of every window on the second floor and probably through the roof when the South Holyoke engine swung around the corner onto East Street between ten and fifteen minutes after that curtain brushed through the candle flame. A good sized frame building well involved, with fire extending aggressively into the attached rectory and likely into the wooden scaffolding for the new church would have been enough to keep them busy for a good while if it had been an empty building at two in the morning...but the screams were probably what clued them in that they had much bigger problems than a well involved frame building...high pitched, terror-loaded screams coming from inside the building as trapped parishioners screamed for help, and then they saw the people stacked in the east entrance like cord-wood as smoke pushed out around them. 

Then they saw the people lying on the ground between the two churches...and then the ones on the east side of the building. I don't know how many firefighters the first two rigs (Engine and hose wagon) rolled in with, but they were overwhelmed from the git-go, not that that stopped them.  One of the firefighters who arrived with this first engine company was a guy named John J.Lynch, and he bailed off of the rig and headed for the east doorway along with a couple of other men as the engine's driver and engineer and the driver of the hose wagon snagged a hydrant, laid a couple of lines to the scene, and got water going.

Lynch and the other firefighters started pulling people off of the top of the pile that was jammed up in the doorway. Behind him he heard their big Amoskeag start chuffing as her engineer opened the throttle up, one crew was likely advancing a 2 1/2 inch line with the smooth-bore tips that were the only nozzles used at the time up the steps towards the main entrance while another crew advanced a second line towards the east entrance. Lynch yanked a couple of more people off of the pile, then realized he had room...

...He heard one of the firefighters on one of the lines call for water as he pulled himself through a gap in the pile, shouting to the firefighters with him to 'Keep pulling them off the top!'  'Jesus, I'm standing on top of people!!" He may have exclaimed when he saw the human logjam at the foot of the stairs. The flames that had worked their way down into the main sanctuary were rolling into the vestibule as he started pulling people from the pile and all but heaving them out of the door. There were far too many people to be gentle...he had to work fast...Oh. God, he likely thought, they're packed in that stairwell, too!! 

Artists rendition of firefighters, including John Lynch, making rescues at the east entrance of the church. Note the firefighter keeping a stream on them, as well as the fact that the center entrance is included in this illustration. Holyoke's single truck company is spotted over on the east side of the's over on the lower left center of the picture...but by the time it got there, there probably wasn't anyone left to rescue in the gallery.

On top of that, this was almost definitely simply a ladder wagon rather than an aerial ladder, While the turntable mounted, mechanically raised aerial ladder had been invented by Danial Hayes seven years earlier, the first one hadn't gone in service but three years earlier, in San Francisco,. It would still be a decade or so before the aerial ladder became widely accepted and used.  Had there been anyone left up there to rescue, the firefighters would have had to make the rescues over ground ladders. A wooden forty or fifty foot ground ladder is a truly heavy beast, requiring several firefighters to raise and position. Of course that was a task that they drilled on regularly, and they could do it in their sleep, but time would have still been against them in a big way. 

There was a rushing, roaring hiss as the first stream, at the main entrance, tore into the flames, the line at the east entrance followed suite a second or so later, it's stream blasting through the door, hitting the ceiling of the vestibule, and cascading for it's entire length, pushing the flames back for the moment. Lynch pulled himself into the jam packed stairwell and dragged as many out as he could, handing them off to firefighters at the now partially cleared east door. He then went back  into the stairwell and dragged a couple more out, and was likely on the way for a third couple or so when something in the church...probably part of the roof...collapsed into the building, sending fire roiling into the vestibule, and causing Lynch to have to bail out of the building. When they reached the bottom of the front steps,  he and the firefighters with him looked back to see the east doorway now belching fire, the stream from the hose line that had been protecting him tearing into it's maw. But they also saw something else. Two other of them being Chief Mullin...also dragging people away from the fiery doorway...

Chief Mullin had assumed command of the scene early on, but he still got in on the rescues...even as Lynch was pulling people from the inside of the church, Chief Mullin heard a young girl shrieking in terror, and turned to see her on the ground in that deadly east doorway, possibly jammed against one side of the door frame, with smoke rolling out over her, pushing from between the bodies still stacked like cord wood. The chief lifted two bodies enough to muscle the youngster out from beneath them, and preceded to drag her out. Miraculously, she was barely injured.

This was probably about the time the roof collapse chased John Lynch from the building, and as he exited the front door, another firefighter named W.T. Mann heard yet another plaintive cry...almost a mewling...from the pile of bodies still jammed in the lower part of the East doorway, and turned to see an arm waving weakly. By now the church was all but fully involved, there was no way this lady could still be alive, but she was. He called for a hose stream to be directed back towards the doorway, then dived right in, grabbed the woman''s arm, and pulled. She probably didn't budge that first time, and I don't know if he moved a couple of the bodies or, most likely, just heaved with every ounce of strength he could muster, but she finally popped loose from under the pile. Mann carried her down the front steps to where ever the injured were being taken...she would be the last person rescued live from the building.

While Lynch, Chief Mullin, and Mann were making multiple rescues at the front of the building the rest of the firefighters on scene, along with several parishioners who'd gotten out early on and several of the hundreds of citizens who'd made their way to the scene, hadn't just been standing around. While Lynch and his fellow firefighters had been pulling people from that deadly east doorway, other companies had rolled in, caught hydrants, and gotten other lines in service while teams consisting of firefighters and citizens pulled the injured to safety from both sides of the church...those on the west side definitely under the protection of a hose line as I can just about bet fire had extended to the scaffolding of the new church.

The city's single ladder truck had been spotted on East Street, the building's east side, but it was a moot point because by the time it was on scene there was no one left in the balcony to rescue over a ladder...for that matter it wouldn't surprise me if the fire had burned through the walls on the north end of the building by the time the truck was on scene. According to the one major source I could find on the fire, the bulk of the firefighting was over within twenty minutes after the first rig's arrived at the scene. But the scope of the tragedy was just being realized.

As the firefighters poured water on the collapsed and still smouldering ruins, they also began recovering bodies, the majority of them from that deadly east entrance vestibule and the collapsed remains of the balcony stairwell.

As the bodies were recovered, they were taken to a variety of nearby locations including a couple of nearby stores and a boarding house for the workers of the New York Mills. At some point it fire officer or city official...realized that this would put an even greater hardship on those searching for loved ones. Back then, Park Street School was located behind the church on the south side of Hamilton Street, between East and Park  and the principal was quickly located (If he wasn't already on scene) and asked to open up the school, and a temporary morgue was quickly set up in the school's basement

The bodies that had been moved were again collected and moved to the school's basement, while any other bodies found in the ruins of the church were moved to the school as well. The problem was that this didn't happen even close to immediately, and in the mean-time relatives of those who had been killed or injured began that frustrating, tear-jerking search for their loved ones that is a given in any major disaster, to this very day. Hack drivers even donated their vehicles, horses, and services to drive worried relatives to the various locations to look for children and wives or husbands.

Many if not most of the victims were burned beyond recognition, making identifying them a horrible, morbid task for their relatives. Use of dental records to I.D. burned bodies was decades in the future, so clothing and jewelry had to be used to attempt to make an I.D. Interestingly enough, a couple of contemporary sources suggested that most of the bodies were identified, thanks in part to the fact that it was a church service and everyone was dressed in their Sunday Best, and that the process of identifying the bodies and removing them to a relative's home pending the funeral, actually went quickly. Some of the stories were heartbreaking...and some were just plain long morbid. Word of the fire had spread city-wide, then region-wide almost before the fire was tapped out and there wasn't much in the way of entertainment back in that era compared to today, so a major fire with massive loss of life was seen as a reason for a road trip...even if you knew no one involved.

The majority of the bodies had been taken to Park Street School by six the next morning, and by that same hour several thousand people were waiting at the gates of the school yard to gain admittance. Most of those people were there to sight-see. If that isn't morbid enough, each arriving train brought more people...try to imagine parents and husbands coming to identify the bodies of children and wives (The great majority of the deceased were women and children) and having to mingle with parents showing off the remains of the church, just across the street, to wide eyed children who were asking multiple questions about the fire. The scene was still immersed in that distinctive building- fire stink with an underlying stench of burned flesh, and puddles from the hose-lines were still standing. The ruins were probably still smoking a bit...had the bereaved been the only ones there those ruins would have been an almost unbearably stark reminder of just why they were there. These carnival-going sight-seers made it all but grotesquely horrible even before they got inside the school.

Mayor Pearsons was at the school early on and had the gates to the school opened, telling the Holyoke PD officers who were there to only let in relatives and friends of the deceased and missing (No word on just how they determined who was a relative/friend and who wasn't.) and it was here that the real heart-break happened.  One young girl, for example, was I.D.ed by her younger sister, who recognized her shoes. The child's body...or at least her face...was burned beyond recognition, and the surviving sister's sobs and wails of agonized grief upon recognizing her big sister's shoes tore at the heartstrings of the strongest men there. There were dozens of similar stories...bodies IDed by a ring, or a post card found in an unburned pocket, or by a specific item of clothing.

Artists rendition of the scene inside the  basement of Park Street School, as family members attempt to identify the bodies of their loved ones. This, of course, was before all of the sight-seers were allowed to go in to look at the (Thankfully still covered) bodies. I truly can not get my mind around that one.

 And here's where everyone having their Sunday Best on when they died come in to play. There were clothes that were worn...then as now...only for special occasions, and parents could easily recognize remnants of their son's best (And likely most hated) suit, and their daughter's prettiest (And likely most loved) dress, just as husbands could pick out the pattern of their wives best dress without the least hesitation. 

The last body was identified at around 9:30 AM, and here's where things got more than a little weird. According to one newspaper article, rather than immediately turning the deceased over to the families or the city undertakers, the crowd outside was allowed to go into the temporary morgue and view the now tagged bodies. And yes, this included children...OK, somehow my mind just kind of hits a wall at the thought of some father pointing out the burned bodies to his kids.

This morbid tour could have only lasted an hour or so as the cops on scene kept the crowd moving, and once all of the sight-seers had been dispersed both the general accounting and the release of bodies did the problems, some of which still linger today. There was a language barrier...remember, all of these people were French-Canadian immigrants and lots of them spoke little or no there were cases of mistaken identity as well as cases of the same name being recorded twice with two different spellings. As noted above, to this day there is some question about some of the names on the official list of those killed in the fire.
When the final official tally was made and put into public record a couple of months after the fire, it listed 74 dead...sixty-nine dead at the scene as well as thirty-nine who were badly injured, five of whom died within a few days of the fire. Horrible as it was, the death toll was actually less severe than many news sources predicted...a total of twenty people were reported in newspaper articles to be so badly burned that they would die (And yes...that type of figure was regularly reported back during that era.)

Several of the bereaved families wanted to take their loved one back to their home towns in Canada for burial, and The City of Holyoke provided rail transportation for at least nine and possibly as many as eighteen of the bodies at the city's expense. The City of Holyoke also provided pine caskets, at ten dollars apiece, paid for by he city, for all of the deceased. All in all, the City donated about 800 dollars worth of caskets and transportation to families of the deceased...just shy of $18,000 in today's money.

A decision was made early on to bury the majority of the bodies...forty-eight of a mass grave in Precious Blood Cemetery in South Hadley, Ma. The day of the funeral...May 29th, 1875...was declared a day of Mourning, with shops and mills closing both out of respect for the departed and so all who wished to attend could do so.

Nearly a third of Holyoke's just over 10,000 people attended the funeral mass, which was held in the  still unfinished basement of the new church. The basement excavation was roughly roofed over by putting boards across the rafters for the unfinished first floor, then an equally rough framework was built to hold the coffins. They managed to get 2500 people into the basement, while several hundred others listened as best they could from outside. This had to have been a surreal and eerie experience for many in the crowd of mourners, especially those who were related to the victims and listening from outside as they stared at the charred remains of the building where those being eulogized died only two days earlier.

Artists rendition of the funeral in the basement of the unfinished church. They managed to get around 2500 people in the basement...modern day fire marshals would give birth if they found that many people in that small a space.  Several of the victims were buried in their home towns in Canada, and a couple others were taken by their families to their U.S. home towns, so there were 48 caskets supported by a wooden frame. The frame collapsed as the service began, making everyone jump, but thankfully not causing any injuries or damaging any of the caskets.

Then, before the Funeral Mass even got under way good, the framework supporting the caskets collapsed, dropping them onto the floor (Thankfully a drop of only a foot or so) with a loud crash that made everyone in the congregation jump, but thankfully no injuries or damage resulted and the solemn service continued.

The bodies were transported to the cemetery using six hearses and twenty-one freight wagons. The mourners were transported in 105 carriages, and the funeral procession was said to be close to half a mile long, taking twenty five minutes to pass any given point. The funeral service had started at around 9 AM, and it was after 11 AM  before the caskets were loaded onto the hearses and wagons and the funeral procession made it's way through Holyoke and across the river to South Hadley. They were taken to what was then a brand new cemetery on Granby Road (Now Willimansett Street, AKA Ma. State Route 33) where, as I noted earlier all of the forty-eight bodies were interred in a large mass grave. A monument was to be erected to honor all of those who died in the fire.

Or maybe make that was supposed to be erected, at least according to contemporary news reports. Several contemporary newspaper articles noted that a monument was to be erected to honor the church fire victims, but instead the mass grave remained unmarked for 127 years. The fire, in fact, was all but forgotten as the decades passed by.

How could a fire that claimed 74 lives, most of them women and children, just pass from memory, with the grave of the majority of the victims unmarked? The answer to that one is both a sad reflection on both the times and human nature itself.

Even though this day and time U.S. Citizens barely consider Canada a foreign country, and Canadian citizens moving to the U.S are barely considered immigrants by their new neighbors, this wasn't always so. Foreign nationals had a horrible time immigrating and being accepted by the American populace back in that era (Irish immigrants regularly encountered signs reading 'No Irish Need Apply) no matter what country they were immigrating from, and speaking a foreign language without any knowledge of English made it even more difficult for new U.S. residents from any foreign country to fit in.

It may have been a bit easier for Holyoke's French-Canadian immigrants than it was for immigrants in other parts of the country simply because the dozens of large factories needed labor so bad...a bit easier, but not much. They were still looked down on by many of their American counter-parts, and on top of that, most were poor, adding yet another layer of discrimination. This same discrimination likely carried over to the memorial. People showed up by the thousands to mourn the dead...but they didn't want to spend the money to memorialize them.

It could be argued that the cost of a memorial was too much for the church to bear. but keep in mind that the new church...and a beautiful, magnificent, and not even vaguely cheap building it was indeed...was finished in 1878, three years after the fire. The parishioners bore most of the cost. Seems that a couple of hundred dollars (These are late 1870s dollars, remember) could have been set aside for a monument of some kind, or even a decent head stone.

  This same discrimination carried over to the church itself.  It's said that when more prosperous couples were married, the wedding took place in magnificence of the church sanctuary, while poor couples had to make due with the church basement for their nuptials. Also, pews were rented for five dollars per year by the church members, causing the poorer members to have to stand during church services.  With a large number of the church fire victims being among the poorer members of the church, sad as the thought is, there is a very real possibility that this discrimination against the less fortunate had a lot to do with the lack of a memorial...or even a marker of any kind...for the grave.  The grave remained unmarked for over a century and a quarter.

This was finally rectified in 2002...127 years after the fire...when a  beautiful polished black granite monument was finally erected at the grave site.  The monument has an inscribed image of the church and the date MAY 27, 1875, with the words PRECIOUS BLOOD CHURCH at the base on one side, and a fleur-de-lis and the inscription:

MAY 27, 1875

On the reverse side, which also holds a bronze plaque bearing the names and ages of all of the fire victims. The words EARTH HAS NO SORROW THAT HEAVEN CANNOT HEAL appear beneath the plaque.

Front and rear of the monument that was finally erected in 2002 to memorialize those who died in the fire.

Names And Ages Of Those Who Died In The Fire
As They Appear On The Monument

Twenty four of the victims were 18 or under.
Fifty one were women.

Also among the victims were:

One entire family of five,
One mother with son and daughter,
Three mothers with one daughter each,
One father and daughter,
Four additional sets of siblings

It's a, a lot...sad to think that, had these 74 people been U.S. born and bred rather than immigrants, and/or had they been socioeconomically connected, this monument would have borne the patina of age, because it would have very likely been erected immediately after the funeral.


I really wasn't expecting to find a whole lot of information about this one on line...and I wasn't disappointed. Or maybe it's more accurate to say I wasn't wrong. There was almost nothing out there about the fire despite the fact that it ranks in the 25 largest structure fire death tolls in U.S.history

 Thankfully, an article written and published back in 2000 by a gentleman named Art Corbial gave me a wealth of general knowledge about the fire as well as several links to period newspaper articles. This gave me a good solid contemporary take on the incident as well as in depth descriptions of the operation of the temporary morgue (Trust me on this...newspaper articles back in the 19th century were far more graphic and descriptive than those written now.) so I was able to get a good feel for the general way events happened...but...I really had to speculate on the actual fire department ops.

I tried to find out some info about what the HFD was like in the 1870s...this includes playing one-sided phone tag with the guy who was said to be their current department history guru ...but I finally had to give up, and kinda rely on my own knowledge of fire service history and such.

That being said, I could have been well off the mark, but I hope I got it at least close to right. If anyone up Holyoke way with knowledge of that department's history wants to chime in with corrections, please feel free. All of my posts are forever 'Works In Progress', and I have no problem with going in and fixing errors and such!

As Always, I hope I made this thing informative, enjoyable, and readable

So...on to the notes!


This was a huge story back when it happened...The New York Times devoted several columns to the initial report of the fire on May 28th, then covered the story for several days afterwards, including a detailed report on the funeral.  Several of the well known illustrated news magazines of the time, such as Harpers Weekly, covered it in equally detailed fashion, sending artists to sketch both their conceptions of the fire scene, using descriptions of the fire provided by eye witnesses, the aftermath, and the funeral.

Cities across the country took a look at the churches inside their own municipalities with an eye on fire safety, resulting in, among other things, the first push to require all exits from public buildings to be equipped with doors that open outward.

Strangely, though, with the exception of the one or two good links I found, there is very little on-line about this fire today. OK, I know, I myself have noted that, generally, the further back you go, the harder it is to find information about an incident unless it is particularly infamous or horrible. But then again, what could be more infamous or horrible than over seventy people, the majority of them women and children, dying while trapped in a burning church that caught on fire during a religious ceremony.

The site I found (Actually from a site dedicated to Holyoke's history...local historians generally rock in a big way) features an excellent article written by Art Corbiel as well as links to several contemporary news reports about the fire. These newspaper articles were the initial reports of the fire, published the next day, and as I noted above, they went into graphic detail, and coverage of the fire lasted several days, covering the funeral.

Then the fire all but disappeared from the pages of history. As each anniversary of the fire passed...10th, 25th, 50th...interest in remembering the fire and victims waned. A history of Holyoke, written in the 1920s, barely mentions the fire, with the heroics of the firefighters (Particularly John Lynch) in rescuing the victims getting far more very deserved mention than the victims they rescued.

A history of the Holyoke fire Department, written at about the same time, only mentions the fact that the church fire occurred, and then only to note that a future Chief of Department (John Lynch) was present at the fire and made some rescues. A biography of John Lynch, written in Fire and Water Engineering, the predecessor to Fire Engineering, gives the fire even less notice.

So, why has this one been allowed to slip off of the pages of history? Unfortunately, I have a feeling that the very same fact that delayed a monument honoring victims of the fire for nearly 140 years also caused it's fall from the history the eyes of many people back in the day, these women and children really didn't count. As sad a thought as it is, many people considered the immigrant population to be expendable and any deaths befalling members of that community to be, for want of a better phrase, the price of doing business.

While numerous articles decried the deaths at Precious Blood, and expounded on the horrors of old churches with inadequate exits and spoke of the possibility that each and every church-going citizen was endangered by the firetraps they worshiped in weekly, they stopped short of memorializing the fire victims, be it with an actual physical memorial or written history of the incident.

Think about the way more recent incidents such as this are remembered today and contrast it with the lack of memorial of any kind for the people who died at Precious Blood Church, and it's truly sad.
It was a far different time, mindset, and culture back then though, and certain groups were considered all but expendable.


 The push for a Memorial only took hold after Mr Corbiel's article was published, and the grave was still unmarked until the Memorial was erected in 2002.


Rev. Dufresne died in 1878, meaning that he barely lived to see the new church completed and opened.  A memorial was erected in his honor on the grounds of the church, this was moved to Precious Blood Cemetery in 1989 when the parish, and the church, was closed

After John J Lynch became the hero of the Precious Blood Church fire, he rose through the ranks of the fire department quickly, to become HFD's Chief of Department in 1880, only five years after the church fire. He held that position for thirty-five years, from 1880 to 1915, and is said to have been a very progressive and forward thinking Chief.  Then, in 1952, The City of Holyoke named a new junior high school after him, and for 56 years, jr high aged kids in Holyoke attended John J Lynch Middle School. The school closed in 2008.


I'm going to hit the numerous parallels between Precious Blood Church and The Richmond Theater Fire a bit further down, but there was one way the two fires were 180 degrees apart.

While the common grave where the victims of the Precious Blood Church fire went unmarked for over a century and a quarter, the victims of the Richmond Theater Fire not only had a church built to memorialize them, the church, built on the former site of the theater, basically acts as their headstone. The majority of the theater fire victims were buried on site in a brick crypt, and the church was built around them. That crypt, of course, is still a prominent part of the church basement.


One major, and pretty obvious. change over the years very likely made worship services far far safer today than they were in 1875...fewer candles. Only two percent of the 1780 church fires per year between 2007 and 2011(The most recent period I could find figures for) were caused by candles. Sure, candles are still used during religious ceremonies, but I can guarantee you that when they are used they are not surrounded by...or even close to...any combustible decoration or draperies.

But that's not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fire safety in modern churches..
It's more like a single ice cube from said iceberg.

If you asked any firefighter worth his bunker gear to list the five worst types of buildings to fight a  fire in, it's a good bet that 'A church' would be pretty high up on that list.  I responded to four church fires over a period of thirty-four years, and all four of them were lost causes when the tones hit. One of them, which was under construction when a lightning strike set the attic on fire, came scary-close to killing several fire-fighters when the roof and ceiling collapsed, trapping them. Only some serious hustling by the rest of the guys on scene along with the fact that some scaffolding inside the building partially protected them kept that one from ending tragically. 

Traditional church construction features a huge wide open unfirestopped attic of wood frame construction, often with electrical wiring and a chimney or two running through it. Older churches can and often do feature balloon construction, meaning that the walls have unfirestopped vertical void spaces running from crawl space or basement to the attic, giving a small fire in the furnace room a straight, unobstructed, and highly combustible path to that big, wide-open attic.The sanctuary is wide open with high high ceilings that make 'pulling the ceiling' to gain access to fire in the attic difficult if not impossible. OH...and that sanctuary? It's loaded with combustibles. Picture the inside of your church, and you'll understand exactly what I mean.

All of these features mean that a fire can get rolling in concealed spaces and go for a major hayride before it's discovered. All four of the church fires I went to did just that...and all four went to multiple alarms and took the roof off of the building in the process of destroying it.

Those were unoccupied buildings, though. Make it, say, the Easter or Christmas Eve service, with the church even more crowded than usual and you could have a major rescue problem on your hands as well. This day and time, though, while it's not entirely impossible for the first in companies to roll up on the same kind of nightmare that HFD rolled in on 142 years ago, modern fire codes, fire service tactics and equipment have, thankfully, have made it pretty improbable.

Modern fire codes, fire/smoke/heat detection systems, alarm systems, fire apparatus, protective clothing, gear, and tactics make a huge difference if the guys roll in on an occupied church with fire showing.  First off, the probability of finding a well-involved church with a sanctuary full of panicked people is infinitely smaller today than it was 140 plus years ago.  Fire codes specify that interior furnishings, decoration, and finish be fire resistant and that buildings have more exits and that those exits be of the proper design, so even if the fire started in the sanctuary as the fire at Precious Blood Church did, it wouldn't take off in the same way, and even more importantly, the congregation would have an infinitely greater chance of making it out before conditions inside the building became untenable...or even particularly uncomfortable.

If a fire did somehow start in the sanctuary during a church service, we have one very basic tool at our disposal today that, had it existed in 1875, would have likely made all the difference in the world. We have fire extinguishers. I know of at least one church that has a pressurized water extinguisher in the pulpit, concealed from the view of the congregation but with-in easy reach of the pastor. Every church I'm familiar with has a couple of extinguishers in or very near the sanctuary.  Most importantly, church officers know how to use them. (Hopefully a few of the members of the congregation should as well).

So, lets say that somehow a candle manages to ignite a drape, or possibly some Christmas decorations during the Easter or Christmas's all but a given that someone will knock it down with an extinguisher before it gets a chance to do more than make a mess, put some smoke in the building, and become one of those stories that's told down through the years.

Precious Blood Church's balcony ended up becoming a death trap, but in modern churches balconies/galleries are required to have better egress through wider stairways and in many cities separate dedicated fire exits. If not separate fire exits, the existing exits and approaches to the exits are required to be both wide enough and laid out in such a way that they can handle the maximum possible crowd trying to get out of the building in an emergency.

The great majority of church fires don't start in the sanctuary...most in fact start in either the kitchen or the furnace room, with electrical problems third on the list of "How Church Fires Start". Most church fires also start when the building is unoccupied, but should one start while the building is occupied, the fire would likely be somewhere in the building where it was not readily detectable by those in the least not until it gained some headway. Smoke suddenly rolling into the sanctuary in the middle of a hymn is not a good way to discover a fire.

Of course, none of the listed ignition sources even existed in 1875...nor did the modern methods of minimizing or eliminating the hazard

 An automatic sprinkler system tied in to the alarm system can both detect the fire and warn the occupants while also either extinguishing the fire or holding it in check until the fire department can complete extinguishment. At the very least, fire/heat/smoke detectors should be installed and tied in to both the local building alarm and a monitoring service or better yet, directly to the fire department. In many localities, this type of system is required in church buildings above a certain capacity, occupant-wise, and has allowed more than a few churches to be safely evacuated while a fire's burning in another part of the building. While we're at it, these same detection and alarm systems have allowed more than a few of the still-small fires that caused said evacuations to be extinguished with a minimum of damage.

Firefighters today arrive more quickly than HFD's guys did in 1875, and, thanks to equipment that wasn't even dreamed of 142 years back, have the capability to actually go deep inside the building to assist with the evacuation and make rescues (That's actually been a given for decades).

Also, on something like an occupied church they'd arrive big. My home county of Chesterfield County, Va, for example, would dispatch 4 engines, a pair of truck companies, a pair of battalion chiefs and a tactical safety officer on the initial, and if the Battalion Chief so much as suspected they had people trapped in the building it's just about a given he'd call for the second alarm before he even got on scene. (It's  far easier to turn 'em around if you don't need 'em than it is to call for 'em and be behind the eight-ball until they get there if you do).

Of course, it's highly, highly unlikely that an accidental fire in an occupied church would get as far advanced as quickly as the Precious Blood fire did in the first place. First off, Modern HVAC systems have removed one ignition source from the sanctuary as well as other occupied areas of the building, and did so in most churches nearly a century ago, though back then, when central heat meant a furnace and boiler, it just changed the type of ignition source and moved it to the basement or to an isolated first floor furnace room. Now-days, of course, the huge majority of churches use heat pumps, all but completely negating the danger of fire from the HVAC plant.

 Alarm systems tied in to the smoke/heat detection system alert occupants in many if not most churches long before the fire can become a life threatening hazard. Exit technology has improved a thousandfold in the last 14 decades. Places of public assembly are required to have enough exits of the proper design to allow the occupants to exit the building in real quickly...without panicking.

In fact, this day and time, if a fire gets going in an occupied church, it would be infinitely more likely for the first in rigs roll in on a kitchen fire in the fellowship hall with the occupants, having been alerted by the fire alarm system, milling around in the parking lot than it would be for them to roll in on the nightmare scenario that Holyoke's firefighters found when they arrived at Precious Blood Church.

 Of course, even with all of these advances in fire safety, it still just may be that some more luck was involved before all of these changes for the better took place. It took decades for fire safety in churches (And every other type of occupancy) to reach the level it enjoys today. All of these advances in fire safety and technology, save for sprinkler systems, came along in the Twentieth Century, some of them not until the mid Twentieth Century  but, as many tragic, catastrophic fires as this country has seen in the 142 years since the fire at Precious Blood Church, that was the only catastrophic loss of life resulting from a fire in a church.


While The Fire at Precious Blood Church and The Richmond Theater Fire were separated by sixty-three years and involved two buildings built for entirely different purposes using completely different construction methods, the two fires have so many parallels that it's almost eerie.

Lets look at the two buildings first.

Ok, admittedly, there were lots of differences. The theater was brick with wood framing and roof structure, and had fewer exits, while the church was all frame, had, for that era, a decent number of exits, and was far better built than the theater. Despite being slightly smaller than the the theater, Precious Blood also had a larger seating capacity because more of it's square footage was dedicated to seating, both in the main portion of the sanctuary and in the gallery.  The Richmond Theater had a dirt floor, where the church had a conventional wooden floor.

There were, however lots of similarities.

* Both were almost exactly the same size...The Richmond Theater was 90 feet x 50 feet, while Precious Blood Church was 96x46., or 4500 square feet Vs 4416 square feet, making the theater larger by 84 square feet...about the size of a very small bedroom.

*Neither building had a ceiling,  leaving the underside of the roof decking and the rafters exposed.

*Both featured additional seating in a three sided gallery above the main floor that was accessed by a single stairway. There were differences in the how the galleries were configured...The theater had two levels of box seating on two sides with the third side, at the front, dedicated to the stairway and 'lobbies' leading to the boxes, while the church featured conventional pews on all three sides of it's single level gallery, with seating sharing space with the stairway and access paths on the third side. Having conventional pews on three sides is what gave Precious Blood more seating capacity than the theater despite having only a single level of gallery seating.

*Both buildings required occupants of the gallery seating to navigate a narrow winding pathway in order to access the stairway. In fact, bad as the Richmond Theater was, the church may have been even worse in this respect. Take a look at the church floor plan again...around 400 people had to make those multiple turns to get to the stairway, then had to make that hard right inside the mini-vestibule at the top of the steps. Of course, that became a mute point when the group coming off of the stairs and the group coming out of the main sanctuary met in the east exit vestibule, because once the jam-up became gridlocked there, no one could move. Horrible as the death toll was, it's actually a bit of a miracle that it wasn't even higher.

Now lets look at the fires. There were even more similarities there.

*The death tolls in the two fires were almost identical...Seventy-two died in the Richmond Theater Fire, seventy- four at Precious Blood Church

* Both first started high up on the left rear portion of the building among a heavy concentration of combustibles.

*Both fires accessed the roof structure quickly due to the lack of a ceiling. In the theater the fire got going in scenery storage that was in the flies just beneath the roof, in the church, the fire got going in the vestry alcove, which as at about gallery level and was loaded down with combustibles, then quickly climbed a painted wooden wall up into the roof structure.

*The lack of a ceiling actually gave the occupants of the first levels of both buildings a very little extra breathing room in both fires because the heat and smoke stayed high for an extra couple of minutes...long enough for most of the people in the first levels of both theater and church to exit the building unharmed.

*In both fires the fire ran the inverted 'V' of the roof ridge like it was an inverted gutter, heating the roof structure to flash-over with-in a very few minutes...this in turn heated the gallery to flash over with-in the first ten minutes (Or possibly even less) of the fire. Once this happened, anyone still inside the building was doomed.

*The gallery levels of both buildings became untenable, filling with heat, smoke, and fire very quickly in both fires.

*Windows played a huge part in the survival of those who made it out of the gallery in both fires. But there were a couple of differences here also. The theater's windows were usable for escape and rescue on both sides of the building, but the occupants had to force shutters open before they could use them. The church's windows were immediately accessible..already open, in fact...but were useless on the east side because of the long drop to the ground.

*Rescues were actually made from inside both buildings, and in both cases those rescued were found just inside the front door at the foot of the stairway.

*Both buildings burned fast and were on the ground in well under a half hour. I believe the theater stayed standing...more or less...for a bit longer than the church simply because it had masonry walls, which stood, unsupported for a bit while the church, being all frame, just, well...burned.

*In both fires almost all of the bodies were found at the foot of the stairway and near the exterior walls...the areas where the balconies/galleries collapsed.


While we're at it...contemporary accounts of the Precious Blood Church fire note that it was extinguished in 20 minutes. I have a feeling, though, that the fire wasn't completely extinguished that quickly, though it's more than possible that they got a decent knock down on it in twenty minutes. If Holyoke had 4 engine companies in 1875, and all of them were running '2nd size' (700GPM) steamers, they could have potentially had ten 2 1/2 inch hose lines in service at about 230-250 GPM apiece...or 2000-2500 GPM. That is, of course, if they had the manpower to handle the lines as well as time to get the lines stretched and in service, and all of the engines were on hydrants that were close to the fire building.

First, that twenty minutes was probably from the time that the first engine company arrived, or maybe from the time the box was pulled, rather than from the time the fire started. I have a feeling no one really thought to look at their watch when the fire started climbing the north wall of the sanctuary.

While they had a huge volume of fire, if that 2500 GPM was used right, they could well have put a hurtin' on the fire...but given the extent of involvement when they arrived on scene, the fact that only a single engine was on scene for the first several minutes with it's crew concentrating on making rescues, and the fact that the walls on the north end of the building had very likely already burned through by they time they had a good game plan in place to attack the fire, they probably didn't get a knock down on the fire before.the church was essentially on the ground. They may have left parts of a wall or two standing, but for all intents and purposes the church burned to the ground, leaving nothing to extinguish but a pile of rubble.


Really not much out there about this one I noted a couple of times, this is one of the disasters that time kind of forgot. Interestingly...and happily from a research standpoint...all of the better links were consolidated in one place.  The inevitable...and this case, pretty skimpy...Wikipedia page about the fire.  A very comprehensive collection of links about the fire, many pointing to period news articles. The first two links are biggies...Art Corbiel's excellent article about the fire and a very informative introduction written by Laurel O'Donnel. Make sure you read them before exploring the rest of the links.

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