Collinwood School Fire

On 4 March 1908, a tragedy occurred that prompted changes in school safety across the United States. About nine o'clock in the morning on March 4, 1908, nine-year-old Niles Thompson jumped out of a window at Lakeview Elementary to escape a fire that had started in the basement of his school. Nearly two hundred children who had also been lucky enough to escape watched as flames engulfed the Collinwood school. Niles frantically ran among his schoolmates, searching for his little brother, Thomas. Once Niles realized his brother was not one of the safe children, he ran back into the school to save Thomas. Neither of the two Thompson boys walked out of their school again.

Niles and Thomas Thompson were among the 172 children and two teachers who were trapped inside the school and died in the fire. Nineteen of these children could not be identified. That weekend, the entire Collinwood community mourned for those lost. According to Cleveland's Plain Dealer, "The village seemed to be one vast procession of hearses and carriages. . . . Scarcely did one funeral carriage pass before another came into sight wending its way with its sorrowful burden to the burying grounds. . . . Those who had no dead to mourn stood on the streets watching the grim procession as they passed. There was scarcely a dry eye in Collinwood." The following Monday, memorial and funeral services were held at Lake View Cemetery for all the victims of the Collinwood school fire. Businesses in the Collinwood neighborhood were closed for the day out of respect for the dead and their families. Lakeview Elementary children that survived served as pallbearers and other Cleveland school children made memorials in the shape of flowers.

A number of building deficiencies contributed to the fire's start and to so many children getting trapped inside the blazing building. According to the State Deputy Fire Marshal, who investigated the burnt building, the fire began when an overheated furnace ignited exposed dry wood in the boiler room. Obstruction of a clear pathway to the exits, narrow stairs, and the school's highly flammable structure were blamed for the fire and consequent deaths of so many children. This "awakened the state to action for better protection against fire in schools and public buildings." Following the Lakeview school fire, many changes were made in school building in Cleveland and throughout the country. For the former, these changes included iron stair cases, concrete floors, fireproof coverings for pipes, the placement of doors directly in front of stair cases, and unobstructed doorways. Everywhere in the United States, laws were passed that required enclosed stairwells and special door latches.

Images

Map