Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1881

Theater fire kills hundreds in Vienna

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.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

NAFTA signed into law

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Clinton said he hoped the agreement would encourage other nations to work toward a broader world-trade pact. NAFTA, a trade pact between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, eliminated ...read more

Mary Queen of Scots born

In Linlithgow Palace in Scotland, a daughter is born to James V, the dying king of Scotland. Named Mary, she was the only surviving child of her father and ascended to the Scottish throne when the king died just six days after her birth. Mary’s French-born mother, Mary of Guise, ...read more

John Lennon shot

John Lennon, a former member of the Beatles, the rock group that transformed popular music in the 1960s, is shot and killed by an obsessed fan in New York City. The 40-year-old artist was entering his luxury Manhattan apartment building when Mark David Chapman shot him four times ...read more

James Thurber is born

On this day in 1894, humorist James Thurber is born in Columbus, Ohio. When Thurber was about 7, he lost an eye in an accident while playing with his brothers. His disability made him shy and awkward, and he was something of a misfit until he discovered a love for writing while ...read more

Americans begin siege of Quebec

Beginning on this day in 1775, Colonel Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery lead an American force in the siege of Quebec. The Americans hoped to capture the British-occupied city and with it win support for the American cause in Canada. In June, Congress decided to ...read more

The Battle of the Falkland Islands

A month after German naval forces led by Admiral Maximilian von Spee inflicted the Royal Navy’s first defeat in a century by sinking two British cruisers with all hands off the southern coast of Chile, Spee’s squadron attempts to raid the Falkland Islands, located in the southern ...read more