The Holyoke Church Holocaust
The Daily Graphic
Saturday, May 29, 1875
The Story of the Catastrophe, the Killed and the Wounded.
(see illustrations page 683)
According to the latest accounts from Holyoke, Mass., the victims of the fire in the French Catholic Church on Thursday evening number 120. Of these 71 were killed, 22 are fatally burned and will die, and 27 were otherwise injured. Fifty-five of those who lost their lives were women. The story of the catastrophe is a simple but shocking one. The French Catholics of the town of Holyoke gathered in their church - a wooden structure-on Thursday evening to celebrate the festival of Corpus Christi. The windows were open, and the draught from them blew the light, dry altar drapery into the flames of the candles, and in an instant a sheet of flame ran up to the roof.
The utmost panic prevailed at once. A rush for the doors and windows was made by the frantic congregation, and while those in the front struggles in the choked-up passages, those in the rear were burned by the flames or suffocated by the heat, while the crowds in the side aisles were knocked down and trampled on by the people who jumped upon them from the galleries as rats leap from a burning ship. The scene was one of indescribable excitement and confusion. The shrieks of the women, the wild oaths of the madly struggling men, the pacifying calls of the priests, the blows of the firemen attempting to force an entrance to the building, combined to render the scene a pandemonium seldom heard or witnessed in the country before.
In twenty minutes all was over. The people were gone from the church, the fire was extinguished, and the dead and wounded were being silently carried from the ruins.
As soon as the situation of the imperiled congregation became known to those outside the news spread through the town like wildfire. People crowded the street in front and every avenue by which the could approach the windows of the burning church. All were eagerly inquiring who had been saved. The firemen tried in vain to find entrance through the thronged doorway. Men and women were frantic. Two little girls rushed to one of the doors and could only be restrained by force from seeking an entrance where stout men had failed through the mad crowd of trampling fugitives.
When it was possible to gain admittance an appalling sight was presented through the eddies of the smoke as it was occasionally lifted by the draught through the upper part of the doorways. The smoke blinded those that were attempting a rescue to such an extent that many had to turn back to the entrance.
In addition to this the heat was dangerously intense. The firemen had their clothes crisped, and many are now suffering from the burns they received. Chief Mullin dragged away two dead bodies in order to rescue a young woman who was shrieking beneath them. Strange to say she was not seriously injured.
There was no lack of brave efforts to check the panic. A man was seen brandishing a club at one of the doors and threatening those whose unreasoning attempts to escape were blocking the way for all. John Lynch was the first fireman to respond to the alarm. He found the doorway wedged with a shrieking throng, none of whom for a time could escape from the press. Afterwards, in the church, Lynch himself was only saved by the prompt arrival of an engine, which deluged him with water at a moment of extreme peril from the heat. Some that escaped fell fainting on the flight of wooden stairs that led to the sidewalk.
The fire that spread so quickly was almost as easily put out when the streams from the engines began to play upon it, but its deadly work had been done.
The body of one woman was found almost nude lying in the pew she had occupied. Only a few burnt rags remained about her charred and blackened remains.
The firemen report the case of another woman who was seen for a moment at a window, her face black with smoke, appealing for aid. She threw herself, or fell forward, from the sill, and, though the distance was small, was picked up dead. Her features were unrecognizable until the stains of the smoke had been removed, and then only by the horrified members of her family.
The detailed catalogue of sufferings is fairly sickening. In many cases recognition was effected by peculiarities of articles of clothing rather than by the faces of the dead.
Our illustration depicts the terrible crush of the affrighted multitude in the endeavor to escape from the burning building, and the scene in the basement of the school-house yesterday during the identification of the bodies of the dead.