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4/5/1897: The Charity Bazaar Fire

The Paris Charity Bazaar was a major annual event in the social calendar of the French aristocracy since its inception in 1885.   Presided over by the Baron de Mackau, the wives of princes, dukes and government ministers organised a large fete to raise money for worthy causes.   The 1897 bazaar was held on the 4th of May in the Rue Jean-Goujon, near the Champs-Elysees.   The entire street was lined with wooden booths painted to look like 16th century shops and inns.   At one end of the street, a larger booth housed a cinematograph show, primarily intended for the children of visitors to the bazaar.   Only eighteen months after the introduction of the Lumieres' invention, cinema was beginning to lose its attraction.   The public had grown bored with short films that often repeated the same scenes over and over, and the cinematograph had been reduced to the status of a sideshow attraction for children.

On the 4th of May, an estimated 4,000 people visited the bazaar, and at 3pm, Ernest Normandin, a concessionaire for the cinematograph designed by Henri Joly began the first screening.   An earlier show had to be cancelled owing to a faulty lamp, and a replacement oxyetheric lamp called the Securitas was provided by Albert Molteni.   This lamp was fuelled by a combination of oxygen and ether which heated a small piece of lime to incandescence (hence the phrase ‘in the limelight’).   The booth in which the sessions took place was packed, and entry could only be gained through a narrow turnstile.   At 4:10pm, just after the fourth session of the afternoon, the projector lamp suddenly went out and the booth was plunged into darkness.   While the projectionist, a man named Bellac refilled the lamp with ether, his assistant, Gregoire Bagrachow lit a match, causing a jet of fire to shoot across the booth, instantly setting the canvas awnings and the adjoining booth, alight, and exploding both the lamp and the celluloid film.   Within minutes, the entire street was engulfed in flames.

The narrow turnstile through which the audience had entered was also the only way out of the booth, and it was quickly blocked by the stampede of terrified patrons attempting to flee the blaze.   Burning tar fell onto them from the roof, turning them into human torches.   Bagrachow smashed down one of the wooden walls, thus saving countless lives, but many women died after being trampled underfoot by men.   Unable to find their way out, a total of 121 people died in the flames or from inhaling fumes.   The list of the dead, who were taken to the Palais de l’Industrie for identification, read like a Who’s Who of French nobility, and counted the Duchesse d’Alencon among their number.

News of the fire made headlines around the world, and did much to sully the cinema’s already tarnished image even further.   Investigations into the cause of the blaze identified the projectionist’s carelessness and poor safety precautions for the scale of the catastrophe.   As a result, public interest in the cinema declined even further; potential audiences were discouraged from attending screenings in tented cinemas, and wealthier patrons stopped hiring projectionists for children’s parties.

A direct result of the blaze was that manufacturers of projectors devised a pick-up reel onto which the played film was spooled, thus ending the former practice of simply allowing the highly flammable nitrate-based film to fall into a cardboard box, to be rewound after the film was finished.

On the 24th August 1897, three people appeared in court to face charges of negligence.  These men were Baron de Mackau, Bellac, the projectionist, and his assistant, Gregoire Bagrachow.   The Baron, who as Bazaar organiser held sole responsibility for the safety measures at the event, was fined a mere 500 francs; Bellac was sentenced to a year in prison and was also fined 500 francs; Bagrachow, despite having saved numerous lives, was sentenced to eight months imprisonment and fined 200 francs. [ADD]




France: 1897



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