Maps, Opera and Les Grands Boulevards

The Bazar de la Charité Disaster: Part Two

If you haven’t already read Part One, I strongly encourage you to before continuing here!

Disclaimer- if you’ve been following this page for awhile, you know I try to find the humor in anything. However, this is one instance where there is none to be found. I’ve done a lot of research into the subject and I wrote this being mindful of the more gruesome details while still intending to share this historical event accurately, thus some can’t be avoided. Here’s your warning to not continue if you are triggered by this sort of subject.

It was reported that within 3 minutes from the time the projectionist’s assistant lit the match, the entirety of the bazaar was up in flames. An explosion caused by the combustion of the ether vapors combined with the highly flammable materials used to construct and decorate the bazaar created a perfect storm that would later become the worst fire related tragedy Paris had ever known.

The fire made headlines around the world

By the time the crowd realized what was happening, it was already too late and panic ensued. The sky painted canvas that stretched over the ceiling burst into a wave of fire and literally began to rain upon the crowds below as everyone rushed together to escape. The most fashionable women of Paris society with their giant silken hats and dresses made of taffeta and mousseline stood no chance and ignited where they stood, spreading the fire to those around them as they spun in circles tearing at their flaming skirts.

One can only imagine the horror these people must have felt as they tried to escape

The estimated 1,200-1,800 people in that space began to surge towards the only way out; two revolving doors which quickly became overrun by the frenzied crowds. Those lucky enough to be near the entrance steadily streamed onto the street screaming for help, but soon the doors themselves became blocked as too many people tried to cram through them, creating a human barricade. All social etiquette was abandoned and people began to push and trample over others in a desperate, animalistic attempt to escape.

Desperation to escape the flames

It was later said that the few men who were present at this female-organised event violently pushed women out of their way to escape, some even using their canes to help clear the path. (more on this controversial subject tomorrow) However, throughout this inferno of living hell, a few acts of heroism managed to save lives that would have otherwise been lost.

Those that escaped often collapsed as soon as they exited the building, further complicating the exit for those behind them

The Duchess Sophie Charlotte stoically declared that she would not leave until the nuns and women working beside her were saved first. A survivor’s testimony reported she seemed to be patiently awaiting her death, and was last seen on her knees praying, her hands clasped with women around her.

Behind the bazaar was an open empty space almost entirely enclosed by the surrounding buildings. The back wall was that of the Hotel du Palais, (no longer in existance) where a single metal barred kitchen window was located several feet up from off the ground. The workers inside somehow managed to remove the bars and pull up nearly 150 women, some by their hair. They later recounted how the hysteria to get through the small window forced them to break the fingers from hands that clawed at them in order to continue saving lives. Countess Jeanne de Kergorlay, a large woman, was seen hoisting women up to this window forgoing her own rescue.

Directly across the street from the bazaar were stables owned by the Rothschild empire, and the coachmen there immediately tried breaking into the wall with anything they could get their hands on. One of these men would later be awarded the Legion d’honneur for his heroism. He managed to use the iron shaft of horse hitch to ram a small hole into the wall. With others covering him by spraying water at his back through the hole, he was able to enter the building and carry survivors out in his arms one by one (if you have seen the series you will recognize this part played by the dashing Victor Meutelet).

A depiction of the fire, notice the man using the iron hitch on the left to create an opening

A few frantic survivors somehow made their way back inside when they realized their daughters or mothers were not with them, further complicating those desperately trying to escape through the same revolving door. Most of them didn’t come back out. In the meantime, the nearby horse drawn fire brigade was called for and arrived within 10 minutes, but there was little they could do as they couldn’t get through the doors with so many people trying to get out.

Escaping the fire

They fiercely hacked away at the building with axes as the few small windows began to explode from the heat, which was so intense they had trouble even to approach. Crowds gathered, some helping the injured, some staring helplessly at the burning building as the screams inside began to subside. By 17h30, about one hour after the fire started, it was done. The surrounding buildings were saved and the flames extinguished, but the nightmare was not yet over.

The number of victims was totaled at 125, of which only 7 were male– and 250 injured. Pretty heavy stuff huh? If you are wondering why you haven’t heard of this real-life nightmare as compared to similar catastrophes like the sinking of the Titanic 17 years later; stay tuned for tomorrow. I’ve attached the trailer to the series (based on these events) known in English as the “Bonfire of Destiny”, to give you an idea of how this tragedy may have appeared to those who experienced it. It is available on Netflix at the time of this publication.

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