Ring Theatre Fire

A fire at the Ring Theater in Vienna, Austria, kills at least 620 people and injures hundreds more on this day in 1881.

The luxurious, ornate theater hosted the most popular performances of the day.

On December 8, it was featuring the second night of Jacques Offenbach’s opera Les Contes d’Hoffman, which was proving popular with both the wealthy and middle class of Vienna. According to the custom of the time, the wealthy theater patrons who sat up front near the stage did not arrive until the last minute so the two balconies at the Ring filled up first. It was about 6:45 p.m. when a stagehand took a long-arm igniter to light the row of gas lights above the stage. He inadvertently also lit some prop clouds that were hanging over the stage.

Additional details of the Vienna fire have been received as follows: On the arrival of the Fire Brigade it was found impossible to penetrate beyond the first tier of the theatre, the rush of suffocation smoke and air extinguishing the lamps and torches. the firemen retired under a momentary impression, because their shouts were not answered, that there were no more people in the theatre. Those who escaped on the first alarm, however, soon undeceived them. Another effort was then made to penetrate the parts of the theatre which were not actually blazing. In the narrow passage between the second and third galleries a mass of corpses was discovered, some so closely interlocked that it was hardly possible to part them.

Through the court proceedings following the Ring Theatre fire the public learned, much to its surprise and horror, of the conditions which had existed in that unfortunate theatre located in the midst of the splendid capital of the Austrian Empire. It also learned to what incomprehensible degree all rules of technical science, of common sense and of the simplest performance of duties had been violated. Indeed, the conditions which were brought to light by this sad incident defied all description and necessarily appeared as a mockery upon the advice given by Herr Foelsch, because it was in Vienna where, at a meeting of the Architectural and Engineering Society, he had uttered the same for the first time, and where they aroused the highest and most universal interest.