The Laurier Palace movie theatre in Montreal was nearly full for the Sunday matinee. The audience of 800 consisted mainly of children aged five to 17, excitedly relishing the comedy Get Em Young. An usher spotted a small fire – probably from a discarded cigarette – and, after giving the alarm, tried to deal with it using an extinguisher. He and other staff appealed for calm, but the thick smoke seeping into the auditorium panicked children in the balcony. It was contagious. As the first firefighters arrived, just two minutes after the alarm, it was clear that the ground floor was emptying fast. Upstairs, the terrified children had found one of the two exits securely locked, so they scrambled for the single stairway leading directly to the street. Hundreds threw themselves down the stairs. The immediate crush prevented those at the front from pulling open the doors; and moments later they were trampled under a kicking, scrabbling, screaming, human avalanche.
Ten minutes after it started, the fire was actually out. Nobody knew it. Oily, thick smoke and toxic fumes filled the theatre and rolled down the stairway, smothering the choking children. Quick-thinking fire fighters hacked through the outside walls to make exit holes and managed to pull several to safety. It was too late. Piled on the stairwell, a few feet from the safety of the sidewalk, the children were jammed and intertwined so densely that, later, 20 men pulling on a rope attached to a young body could not release it. Even then, the few children pulled out alive had scorched their lungs, and died when they breathed the cold fresh air.
Canada’s ‘saddest fire’ should never have ended in tragedy. Nobody was killed by the flames and, had the doors opened outwards, the panic would not have been fatal.
When was the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire: January 9 1927
Where was the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire: Laurier Palace, Moreau Street, Montreal, Canada
What was the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire death toll: 77 children died (12 crushed and 65 asphyxiated) and 24 were seriously injured. Most of the victims were French-Canadian. Montreal went wild with grief, as parents from every quartier rushed from hospital to hospital looking for their children. One fireman found all three of his children among the shrouded corpses on the sidewalk. French-speaking Canada mourned, but regarded the disaster as something like divine punishment. The fiercely Catholic culture of the region was intolerant of any Sabbath entertainment. The fire brought these issues into vociferous but futile public debate.
You should know: A commission reported on the fire. It ignored building safety codes completely and instead became a forum for the ultra-catholic Ligue du Dimanche and other Sabbatarians who wanted to ban working or having fun on Sundays. The commission got children under 15 banned from theatres, but for bizarre reasons, it concluded that ‘immorality, free love, adultery, divorce, thefts, murders, suicides … and the depiction of people flouting legal and religious authority attract paying customers … [and] the portrayal of unpunished immorality promotes disrespect for authority’. That’d be the kids at fault, then?