Chicago’s LaSalle Hotel Fire
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
IT WAS BILLED AS the largest, safest, and most modern hotel west of New York City. Built in 1909, Chicago’s 22-story LaSalle Hotel had an ornate walnut-paneled lobby with marble floors, several grand dining rooms, and a mansard roof complete with a garden.
A central elevator shaft provided access to 1,000 guest rooms.
The hotel also had combustible acoustic ceiling tiles, hollow pockets in the walls and ceilings, combustible rugs and furnishings, and an open light well that ran from the lobby to the roof. It had no sprinklers, fire alarm system, or firestops in the ventilation shafts, despite the management’s assertion that every precaution had been provided for the safety of the public.
On June 6, 1946, a fire of unknown origin — it is thought to have begun in the elevator pit or near a ground-floor lounge — raced through the building shortly after midnight. According to the records of the Illinois Fire Service Institute, Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief Eugene Freemon and his men arrived just minutes after they were notified of the fire at 12:35 a.m. When he saw a wall of flames in the hotel lobby, Freemon ordered a second alarm. Eventually he ordered three more alarms, bringing more than 300 firefighters to the scene.
The fire spread up two open staircases to the third, fourth, and fifth floors, and smoke filled the building. The fire had been able to gather so much momentum because, rather than immediately call the fire department, employees and guests had tried to fight the flames with seltzer bottles and hotel fire extinguishers, according to The New York Times.
The delay had deadly consequences. Rather than stay in their rooms, guests tried to escape via the corridors, where they were overcome by smoke. A fire official told a reporter that he “tried to get down the corridor to the stairway, but was driven back by the heat — we couldn’t breathe at all.” He retreated to a card room and made for the window. Many did the same; some perched on the building’s ledges, awaiting rescue, while others died attempting to jump to the ground. Some managed to descend the fire escapes to safety, including Anita Blair of El Paso, Texas. The 23-year-old Blair, who was blind, “calmly donned robe and slippers and followed her seeing-eye dog, Fawn, to a window and down 11 flights on a fire escape,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
By the time the fire was brought under control, at 4:07 a.m., 61 people had died and 200 were injured, making it the deadliest hotel fire in Chicago history. Among the dead was Battalion Chief Freemon, who died of smoke inhalation while fighting the blaze. In the wake of the fire, Chicago’s city council enacted new hotel building codes that required installation of automatic alarm systems and posting of safety instructions inside all guest rooms.
— Kathleen Robinson