Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on January 2, 2018.

Recalling ‘The Saddest Fire’

The Laurier Palace Theatre fire of 1927—Montreal, Canada


With 77 fatalities under the age of 16, it’s easy to understand why the Laurier Palace Theatre fire is sometimes referred to as “the saddest fire.”

In the early afternoon of January 9, 1927, hundreds of children were gathered at the movie theater in Montreal, Quebec, for a showing of the comedy Get ’Em Young. A discarded cigarette ignited a fire that sent smoke creeping up into the balcony where the children were seated, and panic ensued. Youngsters rushed to get out, but a single steep and narrow stairwell, coupled with exit doors that opened inward, resulted in a jam. There were also reports of theater employees attempting to keep the children from leaving. Seventy-eight people were killed, only one older than 16; several were around 5 years old. About two dozen of the victims were crushed to death as the throng struggled to escape.

Olivier Racette, who was 13 years old at the time, recalled the chaotic scene in an interview with The Montreal Gazette in 1982. “Many youngsters had fallen and were being trampled on by others,” he told the newspaper. “Everybody was pushing, shoving, fighting to get through…My heart was pounding like crazy as heavy smoke clouded up the stairway. I was choking, [I] couldn’t see.”

According to an NFPA bulletin on the fire, the theater had been cited a number of times by Montreal’s fire department for failing to comply with laws relating to the maintenance of unobstructed exits. The stairwell was narrow and lacked handrails or emergency lighting. In fact, the business had lost its license to operate about eight months prior to the blaze, but authorities hadn’t shut it down. “Anyone could have recognized the glaring hazards of this building,” the bulletin states.

The Canadian Wood Council (CWC) lists the Laurier Palace Theatre fire alongside other monumental fires of the 20th century as an event that shaped the country’s building codes, reportedly leading to a stronger emphasis on means of egress and requiring that doors in public buildings open outward.

Beyond the influence the blaze had on codes, it also had a peculiar cultural impact that lasted over three decades. At the time of the fire, an existing Quebec law forbade children under 16 from attending movies unaccompanied by someone older. But the rule was rarely enforced by theaters. After the fire, though, people who considered film viewing to be a threat to children’s morals seized upon the moment to strengthen and extend the law to prohibit even accompanied children from visiting theaters. The ban remained in effect until 1961.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: NFPA