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.
The flames quickly hit the stage curtain, but the theater’s established fire procedures were not followed. The theater’s iron fire curtain, used to restrict fire, was not lowered, nor were available water hoses used immediately. Worse, the stage managers panicked and shut off the gas totally, cutting off light in the theater. At this point, situation dissolved into chaos. The balconies became clogged as the exits jammed. A fire brigade brought ladders, but they were too short to reach even the first balcony. Despite an attempt to use a curtain to create a net, some people jumped from the balconies, not only killing themselves but also crushing people on the ground floor.
Finally, safety nets were brought in that allowed people to jump from the balconies, saving as many as 100 people, according to witnesses. The Royal Family of Austria arrived at the theater as the disaster was ending and immediately began collecting relief funds for the victims and their families. Crown Prince Rudolf was particularly emotional, crying upon seeing the hundreds of lifeless bodies. The estimated death toll was somewhere between 620 and 850 people.
The remainder of the structure was demolished and replaced with the Suhnhof building. This memorial was destroyed when Vienna was bombed during World War II. Today, a police station sits at the site.