69 CHILDREN PERISH. Fire Alarm Causes Wild Panic.
Deaths From Fumes and Crush Injuries. Heartrending Scenes.
The whole of Britain was horror-struck on Hogmanay to learn of a dreadful cinema catastrophe at Paisley that afternoon, in which 69 children lost their lives and over 40 were injured.
About 2000 boys and girls, mostly from working-class homes, were witnessing a matinee performance at the Glen Cinema, when dense clouds of smoke, caused by a film which had caught fire in the spool-room, were swept into th theatre. The cry of "Fire" was raised, and the children stampeded in panic to the back entrance. This was closed, and in the frantic struggle which ensued many children were trampled to death, and others were suffocated by the fumes. All the windows in the building were smashed by rescuers, who eventually took the entire audience from the hall. 150 children, including the dead, were taken to the Royal Alexandra Infirmary, where artificial respiration saved some of them.
Heartrending scenes occurred here when parents learned of their losses. One man lost two sons and a daughter, and fainted when he heard the news. In the case of three families, there were double fatalities.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the disaster is that if the children had not taken fright there would have been little danger, as the burning film had been thrown out of the window.
The Glen Cinema, situated at Paisley Cross, was the scene of the disaster. Formerly the building was used as the meeting-place of the Ancient Order of Good Templars. Its patrons were mainly of the industrial classes. Until about six months ago the main brick hall, which has accommodation for 1000 people, was flanked on the south and west sides by several shops. These have been demolished, and all that remains is a long narrow vestibule leading from Dyers' Wynd to the cinema auditorium.
The hall was gaily decorated for an "All-Scotch hogmanay entertainment," the outstanding item on which was a picture entitled "The Crowd," described as a fight of a man and a woman to rise above the throng and win out to life.
At the top of the vestibule is situated the operator's box. The first reel had just been screened and removed from the operating machine. The assistant operator, Mr James M'Vay, was engaged placing the film in a container when he observed smoke issuing from it. Immediately he informed the manager, Mr Durward. The assistant then clapped the lid on the container, hoping to extinguish the smouldering film, and kicked the container out into a passage. There, however, the lid sprang open again, and the draught carried the smoke and fumes into the auditorium. Children at the rear of the cinema, observing the smoke, raised terrified cries of "Fire", while the manager, Mr Durward, before rushing into the theatre to quieten and ressure the children, picked up the reekng container and threw it out of a window on to a vacant piece of ground facing the Cross.
With the rapidity of an electric wave, the alarm spread through the huddled rows of children. They were instantly overcome by panic. The situation of the hall does not lend itself to ready discharge of an audience. The children immediately made for a door furthest away from the smoke. A flight of stairs leads from the hall down to a lane over-looking the River Cart, and in their mad rush for this exit the children knocked each other down. The scene was pathetic, the terror-stricken children struggling with each other in their attempts to get out first. Like startled sheep, they flocked to the door, and when the first batch had tumbled down the stairs they found the doors barred. The onrushing children fell on top of those below, with the result that within a few minutes they were massed to a height of fully six feet. Meanwhile the manager and the attendants did all they could to calm the children, but their efforts were of little avail, and the situation gradually became worse.
The news of the tragedy quickly spread, and detachments of the fire brigade arrived on the scene in response to the call of fire. Instead of using their hose pipes, the firemen had to break the windows and mount their ladders to the upper windows to extricate the children. Policemen and passers-by joined in the rescue work, and the children were carried to the roadway. The door facing the lane was opened, and the horrifying sight of a heaped mass of children presented itself. Many of the little ones were past all aid, while others moaned and cried in agony.
Quickly the children were brought out to the main thoroughfare, where by this time a large crowd had gathered, many of them parents, who called piteously for their little ones. While private cars and ambulance waggons were plying to the Infirmary, some of the victims were taken to nearby shops, where artificial respiration was applied. In some cases this proved successful, although the children were in a very exhausted condition. Two tramcars were cleared of their passengers and commissioned to convey the injured and dying children to the Royal Alexandra Infirmary, which lies about three-quarters of a mile southward from the cinema. With each passing minute the crowd round the cinema became greatly increased, and a large corps of policemen had to be on duty controlling the gathering and the traffic.
Many of the children were related. It was a moving sight to witness the pathetic expressions of the distracted parents, and the police had a difficult task in keeping the way clear for the operations of the rescue workers. Men and women, eager to find out if their children were involved in the calamity, rushed forward as children were carried out to the waiting vehicles, torn as they were between the anxiety to get a glimpse of the little ones and dread to find it their children were involved. Many mothers became hysterical in the awful suspense and now and again a heartrending moan indicated that a poor woman had found but lost her little one. Few in the crowd could refrain from tears, so touching was the spectacle as one little body after another was carried from the building. Eventually all the children were removed from the cinema and conveyed to the Infirmary.
Dr M'Michael, the Medial Officer of Health, was early on the scene, and due to his skilful arrangements, the rescued children were promptly dealt with. News of the calamity spread through the medical profession in the neighbourhood, and to a man they turned out to render what service they could.
The manager of the cinema, Mr Durward, was heart-broken over the occurrence, and so overcome with emotion, that he could hardly relate the tragic happenings. He told a 'Scotsman' representative that on being informed by the assistant operator of what had taken place, he immediately ran to the vestibule, where he found the burning container, and threw it out of the window into a vacant piece of ground adjoining the square. When he reached the hall nothing could be heard but the screams of the children. He attempted to quell their fears, and pleaded with them to leave the building by the main door, but all in vain. When he eventually reached the rear exit which leads to Terrace Walk and Dyers Wynd beside the River Cart, the children were piled on top of one another screaming in agony. The spectacle was appalling, and he could not describe his feelings in words.
[...] All the children killed were resident in Paisley with the exception of Harry Blue, who was visiting friends in George Street. [Lists of dead and injured children omitted.]
Loss of life in cinema fires in this country has been comparatively slight in recent years. In July two young operators were burned to death in a cinema fire at Welling, Kent, and three people were injured. Five persons were injured in a rush for the exits when fire broke out at a picture house at Airdrie in September.
In October 1928, 400 children singing songs marched out of a cinema at Birkenhead while flames were threatening to envelope the whole theatre; and in December of the same year 700 children escaped from a cinema at Cleator Moor, Cumberland, when films caught fire in the operating box. In August last 400 children marched out of a picture palace at Sheffield when films ignited, and in October several children were injured in a stampede for the doors at a hall at Falkirk, where 200 children were witnessing a picture show when fire broke out in the operating box. There was a heavy death-roll in a cinema fire at Drumcollogher, County Limerick, in September 1926, 51 people being killed. The worst previous cinema disaster in this country occurred in January 1908 at Barnsley, where, owing to a panic, 16 children were killed and 32 injured. In 1911 three people were killed and 15 injured at Middlesborough; and at Chesterfield the same year five were killed.
HARROWING RESCUE WORK
A graphic account of the rescue work at the cinema was given by the Deputy Firemaster [...].
When the Fire Brigade received the call at 2.28, Deputy-Firemaster Wilson was in charge, the Firemaster, Mr Girdwood, being on leave. Two minutes later the firemen were in front of the cinema. [...] When my men heard about the children, said Mr Wilson, there was no holding them for smoke helmets or anything else. They were off the engine in a flash and into the passage. This passage is a fairly lengthy one, and leads from Gilmour Street to the cinema hall. It was full of choking smoke from the burning spools. [...] The screen, Mr Wilson went on, is at the end of the cinema away from Gilmour Street. At each side of the screen there is a passage. These passages go round the screen to a stairway of about nine or ten steps leading down to Terrace Walk [...]. These passages, when I reached them, were packed with children The celluloid fumes were not very bad here, and the children seemed more dazed than frightened. We managed to get them turned and headed back through the cinema to the Gilmour Street exit.
When a number of children had got out, however, we found that those further in were so tightly packed that they had to be helped to extricate themselves. They were of all ages, from 18 months to 12 years. Some of the more badly frightened grabbed at us, and their grip could hardly be loosened. All you could do was grab them in your arms and carry them back to the hall. They were everywhere, at the screen end of the hall, up on the stage, and down in the orchestra pit. Some of them had been so terribly scared that they had actually tried to climb up the screen. Eventually we cleared the passages and reached the head of the stairway. It was a ghastly sight, and it was then we began to appreciate the full horror of the calamity. That stairway is about ten feet wide, and it was packed with children huddled together in every conceivable attitude. They were as tightly packed as a wall of cement bags. Some of them moaned, others were very still. There was some blood about. Legs and arms were intertwined, and bodies were twisted. The whole scene was an appalling tangle.
In some cases it took two of us working very carefully to get one child out. The children were lying in a mass several feet deep, and as we worked down we found it more and more difficult to get them out. Some of them had to be left in contorted attitudes until we could loosen the mass. We would have had to put them asunder to get them out.
While we were thus engaged at the cinema end of the stair, a number of civilians were similarly engaged at the Terrace Walk end. They had broken a window looking on to the Walk, got into a side room, and then reached the stairway. They were pulling the children out of the pile and into the side room, where they passed them through the window to other people outside. In about 20 minutes we had cleared the stairway outside. The children were being lifted into two ambulances, which must have made dozens of trips between the cinema and the infirmary. When there was not an ambulance handy the children were put into tramcars, private motor cars, and almost any vehicle that would take them quickly to the hospital. [...]
I learned of a curious point when we had cleared up at the hall and returned to the station. One of my officers reported that while he was in the hall he had suspected the presence of coal gas. One of the men, Fireman Blair, was taken ill on his return and was in rather a bad condition. [Also,] one of the doctors [at the infirmary] told me that he suspected that many of the casualties had been caused by gas poisoning. I cannot say that while I was in the hall I noticed any gas fumes, but it is possible that in the panic some of the gas brackets may have been broken. This point is receiving attention. Deputy-Firemaster Wilson added that the hall had been inspected by one of his men that morning and passed as in order.
A SAD NEW YEAR. Town Stunned By Disaster
Paisley is a town overcast by a heavy cloud of gloom. The demonstrations usually associated with the bringing in of the New Year were absent at Paisley Cross on Tuesday night. The crowd which was much smaller than usual, contented themselves with shaking hands and dispersing quietly. Shortly after 12 o'clock the Cross was almost deserted. The crowd at the Cross, near where the ill-fated cinema stands, did make one attempt to sing "Auld Lang Syne," but they broke down at the first word, and the song died away to give place to weeping. [...]
The member of Parliament, Mr James Welsh, visited the town on Tusday afternoon and had a conversation with the Provost regarding the disaster. He also called at the Infirmary. He expressed his sorrow with the bereaved parents and those who had suffered in any capacity, and wished a speed recovery of health and strength to the injured.
Paisley Theatre and Paisley Rink Picture House remained closed as a mark of sympathy with the bereaved. A telegram was received from Provost John Drummond, Greenock, who, on behalf of the citizens of the town, expressed his deepest sorrow in the dreadful calamity, and conveyed his heartfelt sympathy to those who had suffered.
A YOUNG HERO. Boy Who Died Saving Others.
The hero of the disaster was a little boy. "This little chap," a doctor at the infirmary said, "rescued four children by assisting them through a window, but was unable to save himself. He was crushed by the crowd before he could be rescued." [...] (Weekly Scotsman, Jan 4)
AFTERMATH OF CINEMA DISASTER
Friday of last week witnessed pathetic scenes at the funerals of the child victims of the Paisley disaster, and at a memorial service in the Abbey.
The manager of the cinema has been arrested and released on bail.
[...] Provost Craig Barr received on Monday morning a letter from the King as follows: -
"I have laid before the King your letter of January 2, for which His Majesty desires to thank you. The King much regrets to hear that the death roll now amounts to 70, and sincerely hopes that the 36 children in the Royal Alexandra Infirmary will make a rapid and complete recovery." - Yours sincerely. A. H. L. Hardinge. [...] (Weekly Scotsman, Jan 11)
In connection with the Paisley cinema disaster it has been decided by Paisley Town Council that the bereaved mothers and the injured children and their mothers be sent away for a holiday at the seaside, and it was expected that parties would be formed on Friday of this week and leave the town for West Kilbride Home and the Dunoon Co-operative Home for a spell. The relief fund, which is now closed, amounted to £5300. Only four of the children remain in the Infirmary, and they are progressing satisfactorily. (Weekly Scotsman, Jan 18)