On the evening of May 17, 1923, fire broke out in the auditorium of the Cleveland district school while a play was being presented by the children as a part of the commencement exercises. Within twenty minutes seventy-seven people had perished in the flames.
The schoolhouse was a two-story frame building with a tin roof and ceiled with wood on the inside. The building was 100 feet long by 34 feet wide, with two classrooms and two cloakrooms on the first floor and the auditorium on the second floor, the latter being used also as a classroom during school hours. In these rooms three teachers taught a rural grade school from first to tenth grade.
At one end of the auditorium a wooden platform eighteen inches above the floor served as a stage. Against the wall, facing the stage, was a wooden stairway from the cloakroom, opening into the auditorium at a point at the center of the building. This stairway was completely boarded up from the cloakroom to the second floor. At a point about two feet above the cloakroom floor, the stairs from the auditorium, estimated to have been not over three feet wide, ended on a landing only three feet wide. At this point a door frame intervened, thus creating an offset on each side of the stairs, which was a fatal defect in the construction. From the landing, three steps led down to the cloakroom floor. From this point, a turn to the left through the cloakroom door into the vestibule and a turn to the right led through the main outside door.
The school was lighted by metal lamps suspended from hooks in the ceiling. The first floor of the building was raised on brick piers to a distance of about two feet above the ground. The ground floor was about eleven feet high, and allowing l1/* feet for the height of window sills above the auditorium floor, it appears that the total distance from the auditorium windows to the ground was over fifteen feet.
The auditorium was filled to capacity by relatives and friends of the children from a large part of the county. The number of those present was between two and three hundred. The stage had been curtained off at each side with burlap to form dressing rooms. An oil lamp was suspended from a hook in the ceiling above the stage. During the play one of the audience observed that the wood ceiling above the lamp had ignited. He started toward the stage to extinguish the fire before anyone else should notice it and start a panic. Before he reached the stage the hook pulled out and the lamp fell to the stage. Some of the men attempted to extinguish the burning oil with a rug and with the stage curtains, which they tore from their fastenings, but the fire quickly ignited some of the curtains and flashed across the stage.
A panic quickly followed and the crowd rushed for the one small stairway. Some got through before the jam occurred at the doorway from the stairs to the cloakroom landing. This jam was largely due to parents dropping children over the auditorium rail on to the stairway below. Also many of those who escaped attempted to force their way back into the building up this same narrow stairway to save their relatives. The result was two opposite groups trying to force their way over a stairway all too small, making an unbreakable jam. The victims were so interlaced at the doorway that three men from the outside were unable to budge them and they were left in full consciousness of their fate, to perish in the advancing flames.
The result of this holocaust was seventy-seven dead, with several bodies completely consumed and others so badly burned that only two were recognizable after the fire. The greater number died from suffocation before the flames reached them, but some were conscious until the flames reached them and ended their agony. Two entire families were wiped out. There was hardly a family in the town of Camden not affected.
The potential cause of this fire was, as is so frequently the case, carelessness—an oil lamp having sufficient burner capacity to throw off through the chimney heat of considerable intensity, and this lamp suspended from a metal hook set into a wood ceiling without protection. Naturally after the wood above the lamp had been subjected to this heat for a sufficient length of time, the fibers became charred and the weight of the lamp pulled out the hook.
A single narrow exit, of a thoroughly combustible nature, for buildings of more than one story in height is too palpably wrong to even admit of comment, especially when such stairway is the exit from an auditorium where any considerable number of people congregate. In this case, the most grievous mistake was in constructing a doorway where these stairs opened on to the cloakroom landing, thus creating an offset on either side. One of the fundamental recommendations in connection with exit facilities is that stairways must be continued full width to the outside of the building.
1. "Cleveland School, Camden, S. C., May 17, 1923", 1000 School Fires, A record of 1000 school fires and major school disasters, October, 1939, Boston, Mass., page 15-17.