Forty-one boys and five priests lost their lives when fire destroyed the Sacred Heart College at St. Hyacinthe, a small manufacturing city about 30 miles from Montreal.
The fire followed an explosion, attributed to coal gas, at about 2 a.m., and almost instantly the 37-year-old brick-joisted building was enveloped in flames. The building was valued at $500,000 and insured for $254,000.
The available information on the details of the fire and on the pertinent features of construction and arrangement of the building is meagre. The circumstances of the fire would indicate that the building was entirely of wooden interior construction with open stairs, no interior cut-offs and no firestopping, that heating was by an old hot air system not installed with modern safeguards, and that such fire escapes as were installed were wholly inadequate as to location and arrangement. There is, however, no positive information available on these features. Unfortunately, the information received was limited to the incomplete data summarized in the following account.
It is definitely reported that the building was four stories high, although photographs indicate that one section was only two stories in height, and that at least a part of what was reported as the fourth floor was a finished attic space with dormer windows. The third and fourth floors were dormitories, where 96 boys of ages between 11 and 18 years and a few priests were sleeping. On the ground floor were sleeping 26 priests and 5 employees. Outside iron fire escapes were provided on two sides of the building. Also provided were standpipes and hose, a manual fire alarm system, and two dozen portable fire extinguishers. The condition of this equipment at the time of the fire is not known, but apparently none of it was a factor in the fire. The St. Hyacinthe fire department consisted of 11 regular firemen and 12 volunteers. Policemen also respond to alarms and assist in fire fighting operations.
The watchman, an old man with one arm, said he failed to discover anything unusual when he made his 1 a.m. round. The occupants, awakened by an explosion about 2 a.m., were confronted by stifling smoke and flames coming from the ventilators into the dormitories. Almost instantly the exits were cut off by flames, and the outside iron fire escapes were cut off by flames coming from the windows. A few of the occupants escaped by crawling through the smoke to a metal chute fire escape. (No data as to exact type or location.) Others rolled themselves in their bedclothing and jumped from upper windows into snowdrifts. None of the occupants had opportunity to dress, and those who did escape suffered severely from the 8 below zero temperature before they could find shelter.
The top floor dormitory housed 43 of the smaller boys. Priests directed these boys down an outside fire escape to the roof of another section of the building. From this point the boys were urged to jump into the snowdrifts below, but most of them, too frightened to jump, remained on the roof until it collapsed a short time later. Most of the persons on the ground floor escaped.
The first alarm was telephoned to the fire department by a passer-by at 2:03 a.m., and fire apparatus arrived within three minutes. By this time the building was already enveloped in flames and the department devoted its efforts to raising ladders to the windows. Several boys and priests had jumped to the ground. Priests assisted in rescue work, which was necessarily limited by the men and ladders available. A great many ladders would have been needed to do all the required rescue work. A lack of life nets is probably responsible for the loss of most of the boys trapped at windows and on the roof.
Attempts of firemen to enter the building were blocked by bolted doors, as the building was customarily locked early each evening. So complete was the destruction of life and property that only eight of the 46 victims could be identified when removed from the ruins.
The cause of the fire has not officially been determined, but a coal gas explosion is thought to have been responsible. The heating and electrical equipments were inspected a few months before the fire and pronounced safe. Electric lights were burning when the fire was discovered, so electricity is not regarded as a probable cause. However, at the time of the disaster the five furnaces in the building were being pushed because of the extreme cold. Records compiled by the Dominion Fire Prevention Association show that almost three-fourths of all school fires in Canada during the previous 16 years were due to heating equipment.
Regardless of the immediate cause of this fire, no expert judgment should be required to label as a firetrap a building of combustible interior construction which housed 100 persons on upper floors without automatic sprinklers, automatic fire alarm or adequate exit facilities. A coroner's jury, after a 13-day inquiry into the disaster, attached criminal responsibility for the fire to no one, but recommended that dormitories in other old colleges and schools be placed on the lower floors instead of on the top floors, and that rigid inspection of such buildings be made to remove fire hazards. The jury also recommended installation in non-fire-resistive buildings of an automatic fire alarm system with connections to fire headquarters.
As an aftermath of this tragedy there was a temporary wave of interest in improving the fire protection facilities of all schools in Canada. The attorney general of Ontario ordered the provincial fire marshal to inspect all private residential schools in that province, and while this work was being done the fire marshal sent out to all the principals of these schools a circular, drawing to their attention the hazards from fire and the necessity of having their buildings properly constructed, with particular attention to exits, fire escapes, and sufficient and prompt means of giving alarms.
The late J. Grove Smith, Dominion Fire Commissioner, issued a bulletin pointing out that, out of 4200 school fires in Canada from 1922 to 1938, the eight largest disasters alone accounted for 342 fatalities, and that 90 per cent of the loss of life in all institutional building fires has resulted from flammable structural conditions.
1. "Sacred Heart College, St. Hyacinthe, Que., Jan. 18, 1938", 1000 School Fires, A record of 1000 school fires and major school disasters, October, 1939, Boston, Mass., page 5-7.