On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, hundreds of people gathered for three programs dedicated to remembering the victims of the Cleveland School fire that took place 100 years ago, May 17, 1923.
Tuesday evening, the S.C. Firefighters Association (SCFA) hosted an in-depth seminar in Liberty Hall at the Revolutionary War Visitors Center.
Wednesday morning’s activities were split between two programs. The first took place at the site where the fire occurred and where a memorial with the names of all 77 who perished was erected years later. For the second half of the ceremony, participants moved several miles away to Beulah United Methodist Church. In its rear yard lies a mass grave, immaculately maintained by the church, in which most of those who died that day 100 years ago are buried.
In this first of three parts, the Chronicle-Independent reports on what those attending Tuesday’s night’s program heard during its first hour when fire officials explained some of the things that led to the fire being as deadly as it was, what happened during the fire, and the heart-breaking response by the only fire department available to come to the scene.
In Part Two, the C-I will recount the second half of Tuesday’s program, focusing on the impact of the Cleveland School fire on government and firefighting policy and on the families whose members survived -- or died in -- the fire. Part Three will report on Wednesday’s two-part ceremony at the memorial site and Beulah Church.
The Cleveland School fire was -- and still is -- the single-most deadly event outside of war in South Carolina. Even Charleston’s 7.3 magnitude earthquake in 1886 killed fewer people, with 60 dead. The Cleveland School fire is also the fourth-deadliest school fire in all of U.S. history.
S.C. State Fire Marshall (SFM) Jonathan Jones said a lot of changes grew out of the tragedy.
“Both in the fire code and the way that we even respond to fires,” SFM Jones said Tuesday night. “The way that we organize assemblies and events just like this one is, really, influenced by that fire that occurred 100 years ago and the unfortunately tragedy of the lives that were lost and even those lives that weren’t lost, the lives that were changed forever as a result. I’ve gotten to hear some of the stories that will be presented tonight and, while there is tragedy, there’s a lot of hope, I think that is woven through a lot of these stories and I think that it’s important that we hear them.”
SFM Jones then turned things over to his father, retired Chief Carter Jones, who is listed on the SCFA’s website as its special projects coordinator. He spoke about the physical, and political, conditions that led up to the Cleveland School Fire being as deadly as it was.
In 1900, he said, there was no real organization of public education in the state, especially in rural areas. This led to rural schools ending up further behind in terms of quality compared to schools in larger towns and cities.
“Most of these schools lacked adequate safeguards like multiple exits, adequate lighting -- they used oil lanterns -- heating (was from) pot-bellied stoves, and the contents were all combustible. Doors, most of them opened inward instead of outward,” Chief Jones said. “Fire safety was not a priority consideration when these schools were built and later maintained.”
He mentioned Frank H. Arrants, who designed the “ill-fated” school, lost his own adopted son in the fire. Despite his personal tragedy, at least one newspaper of the day, reported that Arrants “might have been remiss in his design of the school,” Chief Jones said, but was likely following the design standards of those times. In addition, the article to which he referred suggested that the Cleveland School’s tin roof likely concentrated the fire, making it even more deadly.
Chief Jones recounted the work of Charleston Fire Department Asst. Chief Louis Behrens, who founded the SCFA, and his colleagues who tried unsuccessfully on multiple occasions to get bills addressing fire safety -- not just in school, but all public buildings -- passed. Few ever did.
Even the S.C. State Board of Education got involved, adopting a resolution in 1908 -- the same year the Cleveland School was built -- with two “key” provisions: 1) that the danger to life from fire is “ever present” in all schools in the state, and that any new school “shall have adequate provisions for escape,” and 2) that all schools in the state “shall provide adequate safeguards” with fire drills taking place at least once a month in all schools.
Regrettably, Chief Jones said, now laws would be passed until the 1922-23 session of the General Assembly -- after the Cleveland School fire.
“While doing some research on the Cleveland School fire, I came across some upsetting and overlooked information that should shock us all,” he said. “A report in the Greenville News states that the state superintendent of education refused Chief Behrens’ request shortly before the fire simply to participate in a fire safety campaign in the state schools. Now get this: The superintendent’s reason for not participating in a fire safety campaign was based on the grounds that ‘no fires occur at South Carolina schools.’”
Chief Jones closed his presentation by quoting a National Fire Protection Association’s report on not just the Cleveland School fire, but others like it, that asked if America would ever “learn its lesson.”
“One moment, a hall filled to capacity with happy neighbors and friends. Twenty minutes later, a heap of smoking ruins and 77 charred and smoking corpses…. Each of these fires would seem sufficient, in itself, to get our attention, and yet, such is the resilience of the American nature that we can forget almost before the sound of weeping has died in our ears.”
The fire and the families
Next, another Jones, but not related to the other two men, Lugoff Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief (LBC) Chris Jones, presented what is known about the Cleveland School fire itself. He said the entire episode unfolded in two hours, from 7:30 p.m. when people arrived at the school, to 9:30 p.m. when the school was nothing but ashen remains. LBC Jones referred to an account given to him by members of Clara Hinson’s family. She, he told the audience, said the play started around sunset, which would have been at 8:18 p.m. that year. Around 9 p.m., the play transitioned to its third act.
“Someone looked up and noticed that there were flames on the ceiling. The audience member that looked up, she saw flames on the ceiling and alerted a couple of gentlemen who were in there. Before they could get up to react, it was reported that the lamp fell from its mount,” LBC Jones said. “There are several different reports that maybe the lamp was turned up too much, that maybe the nail that was holding the lamp wasn’t adequate -- we don’t really know, but the facts are that after that, the lamp fell onto the stage, bursting into flames. Some gentlemen from the audience tried to put the flames out; they used their coats to try to smother the flames, but it didn’t work.”
LBC Jones said the fire intensified quickly, with reports that burlap was being used for the stage curtains that then caught fire and rose back up to the ceiling and started spreading.
“In just 30 minutes, by all reports, the building was completely gone,” he said.
His presentation slides showed that for those sitting in the audience, a piano was situated to their left above which was a lamp, with one hanging from the ceiling above the audience and four others lighting the stage, including one not far from the one over the piano. That left front lamp above the stage was the one that fell. Hinson’s family was sitting near or on the front row on the right-hand side.
The only exit was a narrow stairway at the opposite corner of the room, at the back right, and that stairway turned 90 degrees several times to reach the boys cloak room.
“The shock and panic just took hold of people. Some people ran to the stairs, some people stood there in fright. I can’t imagine being in that situation and not having a way out,” LBC Jones said. “People started to panic; people started going down the stairs. I read accounts there were even people throwing children over the stairs to try to get them down in front of everybody else. Once the stairs filled up there was nowhere else to go, (so) they started going out the windows.”
Referring to one diagram, LBC Jones said that, from the bottom, one had to go through the boys’ cloak room to get to the stairs, necessitating several turns to reach the second floor. He added that as people tried to escape going down the stairs, others were outside, saw the fire and smoke, and began rushing inside in an attempt to rescue loved ones. This only made things worse, he said.
“This is why,” LBC Jones said, holding up a shortened yardstick. “That stairwell was 30 inches wide. I cut this yard stick down to 30 inches. That’s how wide the stairs were that night. So, if I had another adult come up here with me right now, there’s now way we could stand side-by-side.”
He moved to the center of the Liberty Hall stage and held the 30-inch stick in front of him. It barely stuck out past his arms.
With another diagram, LBC Jones explained that escaping the second floor would have entailed coming down the stairs from the second floor and reaching a point where people had to make a 90-degree turn to the right, come down a few more steps, turn left 90 degrees, and then exit the cloak room to a hallway where another 90-degree right turn was necessary to reach the outside exit.
There is some thought that in mid-May, the weather would have been warm enough for someone to have decided to leave the inward-opening doors propped open. Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports as to whether stairs themselves collapsed. Whatever the case, there was no physical evidence left to determine either case and LBC Jones was not sure it would have made a difference under the circumstances.
Once people realized they could not go down the stairs, they began using the second-story windows to escape. A photograph of the building prior to the fire shows that the ceilings of both stories were quite high so that the windows would be large to -- when opened -- serve as “air conditioning” on hot days. On the second story, there were six windows on the southern side, with another six believed to be on the northern side, and two windows on the eastern side. It is unclear if there were windows behind the second floor’s stage.
LBC Jones highlighted the left eastern second-story window.
“(It’s) the window that Clara Hinson tossed (her sister,) Leila out of,” LBC Jones said. “Most of the people escaped from those two windows right there, or they got on top of the porch and they slid down a flag pole to get down from there or they jumped.”
Ironically, he pointed out, the open windows also fed the flames with additional oxygen, actually making the fire worse.
In the end, 77 people died, 48 under the age of 18, and most of those students at the school.
LBC Jones profiled some of the affected families. One of them was the Davis family, highlighted by a picture printed in a newspaper several days after the fire of Thompson Davis sitting on the ground, surrounded by the sheet-wrapped remains of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. A.R. Davis, and two of his sisters, Lina, 14, and Leila May, 12. Thompson, just 17, was left to raise his three surviving sisters and one brother on his own.
The Kershaw County Corner at the time, G. Lucas Dixon, died when he went inside the building in an attempt to find his 12-year-old daughter, Clara. They both died, and for a short time before a new one was appointed, a state senator took the responsibilities of coroner
The Hendrix family lost a father, Charlie, and three children, Mazie, 15, Annie, 13, Wilbur, 10, and Ava, 6. Their deaths left no one to drive the family’s mule and buggy back home that night. When someone went to return the buggy the next day, there was no one at home to receive it.
The late S.C. Gov. John C. West’s family members who died in the fire included his father, Shell, 37; aunt, Grace Rhoden, 32; cousins Thelma, 15, and Rebekah, 13; and another cousin, Jack Rush, 16. As recounted in the C-I’s May 12 edition, West’s mother, brother, and maternal grandmother survived the fire by sliding down the flagpole.
A response too late
Camden Fire Department (CFD) Chief John Bowers took things up from there, explaining that back in 1923, the CFD was the only fire department in the county. It was, therefore, the only fire department that could respond to the Cleveland School fire.
Bowers noted that a lot of what he learned about the fire comes from newspaper accounts from all across the country, most of which he said matched, but still with some differences.
“They didn’t know who was there,” Bowers said of the different death statistics published at the time. “There were folks who attended who they only figured out were among those who perished because now they’re not home. Friends had heard they were going to attend the event, but nobody remembered actually seeing them there or could report anybody who survived, but the fact that they never came back home is how they were counted amongst those who died.”
Bowers read an excerpt from a Syracuse (N.Y.) Herald article about how some the people who jumped out of the school’s windows “dashed across fields for the nearest farmhouses for telephones by which to summon aid. Practically the entire countryside was at the schoolhouse, however, and some houses were locked. Telephones are not many, anyway, in the community. Camden was finally notified and the chemical fire apparatus--”
Bowers interrupted himself to point outside, telling those in attendance that the “apparatus” in question was sitting out there, a 1920 300-gallon Seagrave pumper truck that was used until sometime in the 1960s and taken out of storage in the 1990s to be refurbished and used for educational purposes.
“--was sent on the run. When it arrived, it was too late. The schoolhouse was a mass of burning embers, smoking and black, the funeral pyre of half this little community. When the Camden firemen arrived, they looked upon the mass ruin around which stood weeping mothers, frantic fathers, and wailing children looking for loved ones.”
Other survivors, Bowers read from the article, were on the ground suffering from broken limbs and fractures incurred from leaping from the windows.
“There was nothing they could do,” Bowers said, but added that even if they had just come from the end of the street, there was likely not much firefighters could have done due to how quickly the fire spread.
He illustrated this by playing a short video from the fatal February 2003 Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., that took 100 lives.
Before he did, though, Bowers explained that although he grew up in Camden, he knew nothing of the fire until he started serving as a firefighter in 1981. He said former Chief Bobby Snyder gave him a small “paperback.” detailing what happened and with chapters on some of the people involved. One of the victims’ names he came across was Fannie Bowers, 16. The next time he visited his grandmother, Bowers asked her about the fire. Fannie had been his grandmother’s first cousin.
“One of the things I couldn’t understand was how could that many people die. It was just unfathomable that so many people could be trapped and not get out. One of the things that haunted me is the stories that some of the old firefighters told me that there were people trapped in the doorway -- conscious, alert, you could talk to them -- but they were trapped, they couldn’t get out, they were half-in and half-out of the door,” Bowers said. “How could that be? That you could stand there and talk to somebody -- somebody you knew, maybe a family member -- and they were going to die in that fire.”
That’s why, he said, he wanted to show the Station nightclub video. While the circumstances were certainly different, some things were the same: the fire started (by pyrotechnics) on the stage and the club was overcrowded. In watching the video, it became evident that those who did not make it out of the club within the first two minutes either suffered injuries or died.
Ironically, the video was taken by a film crew making a documentary on, of all things, nightclub safety, Bowers said.
“In closing, what I would say about the Cleveland School Fire is, tragic as it was, the people there did what they could do. Everybody that could help, helped and saved lives or they probably died trying to save lives. To see what they were up against -- it’s insurmountable to fight something like that. It happens so quickly and you have such limited options. For everyone to do what they could do -- it was just a tragedy and the aftermath and the things that have been described are just unbelievable for a small, rural community in South Carolina.
“It’s something that I think we owe it … I know we feel an obligation in the fire service to keep this memory alive and I hope you do as citizens of this community, some of which are related to somebody who either died in the fire or a survivor, help us keep that memory alive in the future so that, hopefully, we won’t repeat these incidents that we’ve had.”