Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Heading south from the town of Hobart my family would have looked out upon miles and miles of prairie farmland in every direction.    Soon, though, we would have come upon a break in the roadway with a   turn-around driveway leading off to the left.    At the end stood a sturdy red stone marker.  I don't know if we would have stopped to read the marker, but knowing my dad, there is a good chance that we did.    This marker, which is still there, tells the sad story of a one-room school house which had once stood on that spot in what was once  the community of Babbs Switch, Oklahoma.  Neither the School House nor Babbs Switch can be seen there now.

from  E. Taylor @

There are many stories and newspaper accounts of this 'town that is no longer there,' including a popular children's book The Babbs Switch Story, by Darleen Bailey Beard.    On a snowy, cold Christmas Eve in the year 1924 the people of Babbs Switch all gathered at the school house for the annual Christmas program.  Typical of that time, the building was a one-room school house.   It had been damaged by the strong prairie storms in the years past, so the community had fixed up the building with fresh paint (thinned with turpentine) and strong screens to seal the windows from wind damage.   

About 200 people from the extended community crowded into the school house for the program which, of course, included both Santa and a Christmas tree lighted with holiday candles.  Toward the end of the program Santa apparently caused one of the candles to ignite a tree branch.  The tree was knocked over in an attempt to extinguish the blaze, which, instead, caused the fire to spread rapidly.   Terrifying panic took over the crowd and people rushed to the only exit.  The door, however, opened inward so the push of the crowd prevented the door from opening fully and trapped many folks inside.  The strong screens prevented attempted escapes through the windows.  In the end, many people were severely injured and burned, and a total of 36 people lost their lives that evening as the building burned to the ground.  

The survivor's stories are harrowing.  Some say that the jammed doorway was filled with only the hands and heads of people trying to escape the inferno.  People were seen pleading for help at the windows, but the strong screens prevented escape.   It was reported that one family of four, the Coffey's, calmly formed a tight circle in the center of the room.  Their burned bodies were found wrapped arm in arm the next day.  One engaged couple were planning a Christmas wedding the next morning.  The prospective groom was instead being treated for severe burns Christmas day, while his bride was being buried in a mass grave.  The Oklahoman, December 27,1924

Injured survivors were rushed to nearby Hobart for medical treatment, but the tragedy continued.  Most people had taken the common precaution of draining their car radiators to prevent them from freezing while they attended the program.  Their cars, as a result, overheated along the roadway to Hobart's medical facilities, complicating the rescues and delaying treatments.

School House Safety

The Babbs Switch fire did have a positive consequence in the end.   The story of the tragedy in this tiny town swept the the entire nation as well as the state.   Oklahoma's Governor together with the State Fire Marshall launched a campaign to improve fire safety at all school houses and public buildings.  The result was a nationwide requirement that all doors on public buildings open to the outside,  and steel netting was banned on all school house windows.  Additional safety regulations were also adopted, such as a prohibition of candles on trees and the requirement that there always be more than one exit on buildings. 


Just Stuff From a Boomer said...

Wow, that is quite a horrific story but is a part of history, I'm sure that was repeated other places.

You hear so often of the exits to a building being blocked. For instance, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911, where 146 of the 275 employees, mostly women, lost their lives due to doors that were chained shut.

Rob From Amersfoort said...

What a horrible disaster. As soon as you mentioned turpentine I knew what was coming. I had heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire but I'd never heard of Babbs Switch. I hope the site gets visited a lot.

Nate Maas said...

Oh, how very sad!