Fire. All of us dread it. Hell has been conceived as a place of endless, tormentng fire.
Christchurch, on the afternoon of November 18, 1947, was not a city whose inhabitants seemed in imminent peril of finding themselves in hell. The metropolis was calm and comfortable. Carnival Week had brought the landed families into town for shopping, the show, the racing at Riccarton and the balls and dinner parties which made this the high point of the social year. The big department stores vied with one another in mounting festive displays.
Ballantynes, as always, was the most imposing. Ballantynes was famous as the place where the best people shopped. The showpiece of a private company which had been in the hands of the Ballantyne family for three generations, it was described by the Weekly News as “one of the city’s proudest monuments.” Its “long history and high reputation,” added The Press, made it “as much an institution as a business.”
The shop was of massive construction. Eight different buildings, all connected with one another by wide openings, rose to three and four storeys above an underground city of cellars. Plate glass windows proclaimed quality. Sales assistants were obliged to wear gloves when leaving or entering the building. Tweedy customers climbed a grand staircase to a suite of tearooms designed by Cecil Wood and furnished with mahogany and rosewood, Persian carpets and chandeliers.
“In this family life of our lovely city,” said Archbishop West-Watson, “the firm of Ballantynes is like an elder brother who for over seventy years has lived among us honoured and respected.”
The store, though imposing, was less than perfectly planned or constructed. Openings had been cut through walls between the buildings without permits from the city council. Few of those openings could be sealed off when needed, for the shop had scarcely any fire doors. Ceilings and walls in back rooms of the store were lined with matchwood, for the most part, often overlaid with fibreboard. Staircases were open to draughts. Lifts were similarly open, or else enclosed with flammable panels. Cellars, showrooms and storerooms were filled with what firemen call a high “fire load”—a large bulk of fabrics and other combustible contents.
Alarms installed between the wars had been removed by the security firm which fitted them, because inspectors employed by the firm felt that Ballantynes neglected to maintain the system. A second set of alarms, installed by order of the State during the war, had also recently been dismantled. The shop had never been fitted with sprinklers. Management, having had the place measured up for a sprinkler system earlier in the year, had decided to turn down the quote. Nor were the buildings safeguarded by useful fire escapes. The firm, though required by the Factories Act to provide escapes for every workroom on the upper floors, had never fulfilled that law.
Factories Acts were important,because Ballantynes was more than a classy department store. Workrooms in dark warrens crowded behind its Italianate cornices.
The workrooms were thronged with young women—machinists and milliners, seamstresses and tailoresses, hunched over benches. They and a number of tradesmen who sat alongside them were making high quality hats and clothing, fitted to order and finished with the best workmanship, for clients prepared to pay a stiff price. Tailors and tailoresses stitched suits by hand, pulling waxed thread through top quality cloth. Seamstresses sewed the silk and satin of evening gowns. Others worked as specialists in the making of uniforms for the private schools of Canterbury, or kilts for ceremonial occasions, or jodhpurs for customers who played polo.
Late in the afternoon of the 18th, smoke began to drift up from a cellar. The smoke was seen at 3.31 P.M.and senior staff were soon informed.
The cellar, one of six basements beneath the buildings of Ballantynes, contained closely packed stores of folding furniture, rolls of carpet, bolts of muslin, linen, velvets, tapestries, silk brocades and glazed chintzes, together with tins of naphthalene, cans of cleaning fluid and equipment for the housekeeping staff. An electrical cable crossed the full length of this subterranean space. The cable, a corded musculature of high voltage current, functioned as the central power artery for the entire department store, and its installation would later be found by official investigators to have been “unquestionably” defective—but not necessarily the cause of the fire. No one knows with certainty what triggered the blaze.
“I see you have a fire,” commented a customer in the carpet showroom on the ground floor. A salesman looked at her, startled.
“Over there,” she added. “Do you see it, Harriet?”
Myra Mangin and Harriet Kaan had been walking past displays of Kidderminster broadloom. Now, for some minutes, they stood and watched while various members of staff ran back and forth to the telephones or faltered indecisively in front of an aperture that led downstairs to the smoke.
Roger Ballantyne, one of the heads of the proprietary family, arrived. Time passed. Staff in the showroom were ordered to cover stock with calico sheets, but no instructions for evacuation were issued. Most staff in most other parts of the department store remained at their counters. Customers were not told to leave. A string trio played classical pieces under the plastered vault of the chief tearoom.
The minutes continued to tick by. Fire doors were drawn across two archways in an attempt to confine smoke to one part of the store, but fumes forced their way upwards through unseen cavities and started to issue as poisonous wreaths in showrooms and workrooms.
The life of the department store went on in a strange and darkening twilight. Five hundred employees were kept at their work. Five hundred customers roamed through the showrooms, trying on gloves, buying porcelain or chatting over mile feuilles and sterling silver.
Sirens were heard in the street. Firemen had been alerted at 3.46 P.M. by a telephone message from a window dresser, and soon after by a second call from “a female,” telling them that Ballantynes was troubled by a cellar fire.
The response of the fire brigade had been prompt. The force that turned up just before 3.48 was a small detachment of two engines and a van, manned by fourteen men. Equipment consisted of hoses, axes and four short- and middle-length ladders—standard tools for fighting a cellar fire.
Cellar fires are almost always easy to control and confine. Firemen were not aware that the cellars of Ballantynes were loaded with flammable stuffs, nor that the subterranean space was not airtight. The smoking cellar was connected with three other basements, creating a powerful draught along the entire length of the Colombo Street frontage of the shop, and, as the fire took hold, pumping more and more smoke and hot gases upwards through the whole huge structure.
People inside Ballantynes heard the sirens and assumed that something must be burning in a neighbouring department store, or perhaps some place down the street. Young women leaned out of upstairs windows.
“Where’s the fire?” they yelled to one another from their offices and workrooms.
The mood was light-hearted. Some young women, it seemed to a draughtsman, appeared to be “enjoying themselves . . . laughing and carrying on.” A police sergeant heard “hilarious laughter” from the windows of the smouldering store.
More time passed. Staff were sent back to their work. The slow spread of smoke forced the heads of some sections to clear their workrooms,and a buyer ordered the evacuation of two showrooms, but staff in most departments were told to “stand by,” which they understood to mean that they must wait behind their counters. They continued to serve customers.
Customers had been asked by now to leave some showrooms, but no general evacuation had been ordered and hundreds of shoppers remained inside the building, many not aware that anything untoward was taking place. “The atmosphere,” customer Gordon Troup would later comment, was “still one of extreme, exaggerated business as usual.”
Firemen started to have a bad feeling about the situation, but found it hard to work out how best to deal with the smouldering cellar. Jim Burrows, the officer in command of the force, was not allowed under law to enter a burning building without permission from its owners.
Roger Ballantyne stepped into the street to take charge. But, instead of leading the fire chief directly to the cellar, he wasted several minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to find a way down a goods lift at the back of the building.
Not that firemen could stop the spread of heat and smoke. Pouring water into the cellars from their “leads,” while it might perhaps have prevented any serious problem if carried out fifteen or twenty minutes earlier, was now too late.
As it was, the leads had still not been placed. Fire-fighters were not sure where to find the seat of the fire, nor where water would best be directed. Almost half an hour had passed since smoke was first sighted. Clocks were about to strike four.
Ballantynes, symbol of an orderly, correct life, suddenly burst into flame.
Fire was first seen in the form of a red pillar which shot from a cellar up a stairwell and roared with terrifying speed through the eastern end of the central storey. This was the moment of flashover—the ignition of gases which have built up to a critical intensity of heat in confined spaces, and can do nothing but explode.
Flashover was followed by conflagration. Flame, having belched through the heart of the building, started to work its way forward with an overpowering force. Hundreds of people, alerted at last by the sounds and sights of disaster, ran for doors and staircases in the hope of making it to the safety of the streets.
Those on the ground floor had the least fearsome path to follow. “I didn’t stop to think, all I knew was that . . . the ceiling above us was cracking . . . and falling down,” recalls Ngaire Claridge, an assistant in the confectionery department. “We ran. We didn’t even take time to run around the corner of our counter, we just hurdled the counter. We ran out to Cashel Street. We looked up, and we were amazed. The whole place was in flames!”
All from the ground floor were soon safe. Those on the upper floors found themselves in more desperate straits. The first force of flashover had filled the eastern end of the second floor with flame. Customers and staff in an arcade and lounge at the head of the grand staircase saw fire burst towards them through open archways. They fled down the magnificent stairs. As they ran, they were blitzed with hot ashes and sharp shards of glass.
Staff in nearby sections were chased by flame to the windows. Clutching at sashes, they threw the windows open, clambered on to stone ledges, dropped two metres on to the slippery slates of a verandah roof, then scrambled westwards to escape smoke and falling cinders.
Deadly danger also confronted one hundred or more customers and staff in the tearooms at the western end of the second floor. Luckily, a young cashier, June Taylor, was alert. June had just stepped from the tearooms to a door which led into the central arcade, where she saw a moving mass of flame. “It was bright, and getting closer,” says June. “I didn’t wait to see any more.” She hurried back through the tearooms.
Word was spread swiftly among waitresses. Waitresses in turn worked their way down their tables, telling customers to leave by way of a western staircase. Patricia Waine, one waitress, already knew there was some sort of fire because she had earlier heard sirens and walked to a window to take a look. “It’s nothing to do with you,” the hostess of the tearooms had told her. “Customers are waiting, get back to work.” Patricia was now told to clear her station. “I’m sorry, ladies,” she said to each table, “we need to leave the building.”
The western staircase was still safe. Evacuation from the second floor was completed without casualties. Customers and staff soon stood in the street, looking back up at the burning building, finding it impossible to believe what they now saw.
“I saw it all on fire,” says Patricia Waine. “I sort of panicked then. I saw people up at the windows.”
The people seen at the third and fourth floor windows were in the most desperate position. Their escape had been cut off by the flame-filled floor below them. Those at one end could still make it to two westernmost stairways, if they ran.
They did run. Shirtmakers and hatmakers, tailors and tailoresses, together with staff who had been seated at tea in a cafeteria, took to their heels. Many of them made the mistake of heading down a staircase which was filling with smoke. Turned away by the cries of those at the bottom, they sprinted back up to the cafeteria and through the kitchens, then found their way on to the safe staircases down to the street.
“It was pitch dark on the stairs,” recalls Marion Hooykaas, a tailoress. “You could smell smoke. It was frightening. ‘Hurry up!’ people were saying. ‘Hurry up!’ I was scared. I couldn’t get my footing. The blackness. I was in the middle, crowded in, with elbows on both sides of me, and couldn’t get hold of a railing.”
Marion and the rest of the crowd at last reached the safety of the street. People at the eastern end of the third floor, and in the millinery workroom of the fourth floor, were not free to follow. Lift shafts were now impassable with flame. Staircases were thick with killing heat. Forty or more people, mostly young women, were trapped.
“They’ve locked the doors,” people screamed in the street. “They won’t let the girls out. The girls can’t get out!”
Smoke vomited into a black cloud two kilometres high. Twenty thousand people pushed and shoved through the streets of the city towards the inferno. Windows cracked from heat on the opposite side of the street. The roar of the fire was almost deafening.
Fire-fighters could do nothing but open their leads, pump huge volumes of water into the structure at random, and wait for the raging flames to burn themselves out. The first small force was augmented by almost every fire-fighter in the city and from neighbouring towns. Nineteen appliances crowded the streets. Thirty water jets, worked by 231 men from the civil and military forces, contained but could not defeat the flames.
“In fact, no amount of water can extinguish such a conflagration,” comments Gordon Walker, a fireman historian. “The fuel which is available to it continues to burn itself out until the building is gutted.”
Nor could fire-fighters save those who had found themselves trapped on the third and fourth floors. Ladders could not reach the upper windows.
Thirty-one women and ten men were soon dead.
People in the street then felt a rumbling thunder which shook the pavement and led some to fear the outer walls would fall. The walls stood fast, however, strong as a blast furnace, while the roofs came roaring down. First the slates and steel, the lead and hardwood and glass at the top of the building caved in, causing flame and ash to shoot from third floor windows. Then the second floor fell in turn, crushed by the weight of roofs and ceilings from above. Showcases shattered. Shards sprayed into the streets. The polished mahogany of the grand staircase, the magnificent arcades of the central pavilion, the Jacobean panelling, the paintings of the art gallery, crashed and smashed into ruin.
“It shouldn’t be happening, it shouldn’t be happening!” whimpered witnesses.
Should it have happened? The facts of the Ballantynes fire are hard to accept. “It remains almost incredible,” commented W. R. Lascelles, a solicitor at the subsequent inquiry, “that as a result of a cellar fire in the extreme corner of a large city store on a summer afternoon, and after the warning continuously given by smoke which precedes fire, no less than forty-one persons, mostly women and girls, should have been burnt to death.”
The fire soon assumed the proportions of a powerful myth. The city was filled for a time with grief, anger and fear. People needed to find someone to blame, or to find meaning amidst what seemed meaningless. A mass ceremony took place, witnessed by most of the city, in which the burnt pieces of the dead were buried in 40 coffins.
Two generations of myth making followed. Emotive, often contradictory, stories were circulated by word of mouth. Long years passed in which almost nothing about the fire was written; hearsay filled the gap in the published record.
The myths, which are still strong today, take two forms.
Working people, especially working class women, see the disaster as an example of the powerless suffering at the hands of the powerful. They blame firemen, perhaps, or politicians. Most often they blame the bosses. They condemn the meanness of management, the failures and faults of those men who owned and ran the department store. At the time, there were calls for those men to be tried for manslaughter, or even murder.
“I think blaming the Ballantynes was almost universal in the circles in which I moved,” comments Jim Johnston, a former apprentice.
“Kenneth Ballantyne, that wicked, wicked man,” weeps Myrtle Young, a pastrycook who narrowly escaped death in the fire, “was thinking of money, not people.”
A different view is held by the middle class and also by a number of working people who served Ballantynes loyally for a lifetime. Such folk think of the fire as an accident, an act of fate or nature or God. Some go further: they see the deaths of victims as a result of disobedience. Workers, they say, were instructed to evacuate but failed to obey. “They were, in part,” maintained a lawyer at the inquiry, “the authors of their own misfortune.”
Holders of this view attempted from the first to downplay the fire. Some did so for reasons of simple self-interest. Owners, shareholders and customers had good cause to minimise this “misfortune,” but many responded at a more subliminal level. They felt a deep desire to deny the power of the fire. They longed to negate the experience.
Counting heads, for example, became crucial. While many working people were shocked by the thought that hundreds of people had been inside the building at the time of the fire, Ballantynes supporters wanted to cut the crowds down to size. They were able to do so because they controlled access to official and semiofficial sources.
A numbers game followed. The National Film Unit was told by the company for a news release that “the firm employed about 300 people.” Not so. The Royal Commission of Inquiry, which during the first months of 1948 investigated the fire, was able to compel the firm to admit that the real number of staff totalled 458 people. They were not told, though, to add to the list the unenumerated staffs of Georgette Millinery and the Ring House, smart shops housed inside the same buildings as Ballantynes.
Customer numbers were similarly concealed. The first report of the National Film Unit was that “few shoppers” were inside the store. Ballantynes later estimated to the Royal Commission that “between 250 to 300” customers were inside the showrooms during an ordinary afternoon.
Carnival Week, however, was not ordinary. Fashion departments were filled with more than their usual number of clients, and to this crowd we have to add the customers of Georgette Millinery and the Ring House, together with a throng of people who were seated in the palatial suite of tearooms. The tea salon, the Jacobean lounges, the grill room, pink room and gold room could accommodate 250 or more people. They hummed that afternoon. “About half the tables were full, I think,” estimates June Taylor.
The total of customers at risk was perhaps 500 people, much the same as the total of staff. One thousand people were in peril.
The numbers game was accompanied by many other attempts to put a lid on the fire. Film footage was lost on the cutting room floor because people in positions of authority thought it “too distressing.” The National Film Unit was directed to emphasise the positive; to screen shots of brave firemen instead of the screaming faces of women. Newspapers took a similar line. The Press, an institution as central as Ballantynes was to the Canterbury establishment, toned down controversy and printed few pictures, unlike its rival The Star, which printed a poignant gallery of portraits of victims. Both papers suppressed letters to the editor which dealt with the fire. To the present day, The Press prefers to flatten public debate about the biggest news story ever to have come out of Canterbury.
As for the store, it never lost a day’s trading. The company had taken care to keep not just its premises and contents thoroughly insured, but had also covered itself with a policy against loss of profit, which meant that the fire resulted in only the slightest financial forfeits for the firm.
“Business as usual,” decided management. Rubble was removed swiftly from the site, and new temporary premises run up. Profits were good. The temporary premises were soon replaced by a permanent structure which, while not as grand as the old store, would see the company into its second century of trading. Ballantynes continues to serve the city of Christchurch and to offer “what is expected from the Firm by its customers throughout New Zealand.”
Now, more than ever, those who adopt the company’s viewpoint insist that the fire is history, and should be left in the past. “Why rake over old embers?” they ask. “The fire was an accident, and the dead are best left in peace.”
The dead have not wrested in peace. Feelings are still powerful. The fire, in fact, as no accident. Though the flames were not lit on purpose, the inferno inside Ballantynes was something that happened because people had made such hellfire possible.
Natural disasters we tend to accept fatalistically as forces outside our control. An earthquake or hurricane comes whether we like it or not. Our acceptance is misplaced, though, because the numbers of those killed and maimed in a natural disaster are partly determined by what has been done before the catastrophe comes, and by things done or not done when it hits.
How have structures been built? How efficient is the transportation system? How is electricity reticulated? Gas? What about the social environment? Society shapes our response. The people hit by a disaster—are they passive or active? Have they been encouraged to show initiative? Or have they been told to wait for orders?
Nature, on the afternoon of November 18, 1947, played only the most modest part. The initial cause of the fire was almost certainly human error—even if that error was no more than shoddy electrical work; the subsequent spread and murderous impact of the fire sprang entirely from human error. Errors, above all, of management. The Royal Commission hammered this point home. Ballantynes management failed in the first place “to warn the staff and the members of the public on the premises of the existence and seriousness of the fire,” and then failed “to provide for their safety and escape.”
But the conclusions of the Commission have not convinced everyone. A feeling persists in some quarters that the store, so admired for its discipline and high class, was and is beyond reproach.
Ballantynes was a world in which not just class but custom, craft, gentility, gender and many other variables determined who did what, who was paid what, who was free or less free, and who, in the end, would burn to death. Those at the top were wealthy businessmen. Those at the bottom were working women. But it was by no means a straightforward system which stratified people inside the shining showrooms and dark workshops of the store.
Staff were ranked according to their place in three parallel hierarchies: a trade hierarchy of blue collar workers, a service hierarchy of sales staff and a white collar hierarchy of office staff.
The bottom levels of the trade hierarchy were peopled by cleaners, lavatory attendants, liftmen, kitchen hands, storemen, dishwashers, laundresses, together with various labourers and “boys” employed as maintenance staff.
Higher in the heap came workers who possessed some modest skill, or who were being trained. Apprentices were clearly junior but on their way to becoming artisans. Waitresses in the stylish tearooms were not skilled workers, but tended to see themselves as better off than the mundane “tea ladies” who served in the staff caf. Electricians and carpenters had a strong sense of their own worth. Chefs and pastrycooks, tailors and tailoresses, dressmakers and milliners, hatters and shirtmakers—these people were no less confident that they were at the top of their trade.
Tradeswomen and tradesmen were closely disciplined. “You had to be very careful and speak nicely,” says Betty Coulson, a dressmaker, “or else you were reported on.”
Forewomen could be tartars. Their strictness, while feared, was also admired. Lily Jenkin, head of the frock workroom, is remembered with respect. “A very exacting boss, but she knew her job. I thank her for all I know,” recalls seamstress Doris Black.
Betty Coulson has similar memories. “Hold your head high!” she was told by her superior. “You’ve been trained at Ballantynes.”
Sales staff, the second hierarchy, formed disciplined and closely supervised squads. Saleswomen were compelled to wear black, unless they worked in the cosmetics or confectionery departments, in which case they wore white. They were drilled in deference and were steeply graded from third assistants at the lowest level up to the powerful position of buyer.
Those promoted to senior ranks were often such passionate advocates of the system that they took pains to be hard on those below them. “Most of the seniors were real bossy britches,” recalls an art assistant. “They just ordered you around, and you had to do it. We worked hard, we worked jolly hard!”
Some felt grateful for such treatment. “The grounding that Ballantynes gave us was very tough and hard,” reminisces saleswoman Dorothy Simpson, “but my word it’s stood us in good stead.”
White collar staff, the third hierarchy, worked in the despatch department, in mail order, in “appro,” at the enquiry counter, and in the credit and accounts department. They represented a wide range of skills. Some were novices fresh from school. Others were senior private secretaries and accountants. Most were young women typists and clerks. “Office workers had a habit of thinking that they were a bit above the shop assistants,” says saleswoman Clarice Faber.
The system of parallel hierarchies meant that rank was not simple. Norma Frew, who worked as a clerk, felt that sales staff looked down on office staff. “Shopwomen thought they were superior . . . catering to the crème de la crème of Christchurch, all the top ladies . . . They just looked down their noses at you, as if to say, ‘Where did you crawl out from?’ Office staff weren’t considered anything at all.”
Men filled all senior managerial positions and were at the very top of the hierarchy. Women, though, were perhaps even higher than the top. Certain women, at least. Women of the Ballantyne family owned shares in the company. Their purses were lined by its profits, and their power was considerable.
The “lady customers” who were the chief clientele of the shop were also powerful. They, as they drifted about the showrooms and salons, embodied the world the store was designed to serve. Women of the landed class looked down on the Ballantyne family as “trade.” A managing director, seen from their point of view, was a sort of senior servant.
“The people with the right names—it didn’t matter who else was there—would have to be served first,” recalls Clarice Faber. Ballantyne men deferred to such women.
“When a certain type of customer came through the door you’d know about it automatically,” adds a cosmetics saleswoman. Roger Ballantyne would “rush towards the customer, flutter around them, pull out a seat for them.”
Ballantynes, though not a simple patriarchy, was a place where authority came emphatically from the top. Deference was the system. Waiting for orders was also part of the system. The reward for obedience was that the firm would protect a worker from any need to take decisions or make choices. “If you’d been a good servant to the family, Ballantynes would carry you for years, they’d keep you on for life,” says Norma Frew.
Deferring . . . waiting for orders. . . this was the pattern of habits that led directly to death.
Following orders can work well, perhaps, when orders are worth waiting for, and when they come. The trouble in the Ballantynes fire was that appropriate instructions were never issued. People escaped the fire by following their noses rather than following orders.
The heads of the firm knew what order should have been given. They had been trained during the war in standard measures for fire. The manuals they memorised in those years defined the first duty of management as being to evacuate personnel. To this day it is often claimed that one benefit of the Ballantynes fire was that it raised awareness of fire safety, but Ballantynes need simply have kept up the systems which had been in place during the war for nobody to have died.
Incredible as it may seem, not only was no prompt order issued for evacuation, but commands were rapped out for credit and accounts staff to waste time putting away records. Commands which were obeyed. The clerks, cashiers, typists, bookkeeping machinists, accountants and secretaries who manned credit and accounts on the third floor of the store were staff who took particular pride in their service to Ballantynes. “We were loyal to them, and they were loyal to us,” agree three women who worked in the offices. “We were expected to behave like young ladies.”
Credit and accounts seemed far from the seat of the fire. While smoke started to fill showrooms and workrooms, the air in credit and accounts remained clear. Staff in the department heard sirens. Rumours of fire reached them from other sections of the smouldering building. No orders came, though, so staff stayed at their tasks. When a telephone operator and two artists from the display department found themselves forced out of the fourth floor by smoke and took refuge in the credit office, they felt no need to continue downstairs to the streets.
Kenneth Ballantyne appeared in credit and accounts about 20 minutes after smoke had first been sighted downstairs. He had just completed a tour of the lower floors of the store. He paced into the department and took control.
“Put away the bins,” announced a voice of authority.
This order may not have been given by Ballantyne—it was perhaps issued by his deputy—but the managing director endorsed it, and then stood supervising to see that the job was done.
Putting away the “bins” was a standard order which meant that staff were to pack up records and equipment. “We all proceeded to put all our bins away,” explained Lois Kennedy, a credit clerk, “collecting our numerous things about the office—typewriters, adding machines and records that were lying around—and placed them all in the safe.”
Putting away the bins took time. Five minutes or more passed. Time enough for all to have headed downstairs to safety. Staff found, when they had safely deposited the last records in the strongroom, that flight from the department was now blocked by fire and noxious fumes.
They were cornered. The telephone operator and display artists were cornered too. These hapless prisoners of the burning building were faced with a choice between waiting for the flames to consume them or jumping out the windows. To jump meant to fall onto a verandah sheathed with slate. Most could not bring themselves to try it. They waited.
Caroline Blair, a young clerk, climbed on to a window ledge but was persuaded by friends not to jump. Flames started to push through the floor. An “elderly gentleman, fairly thickset,” climbed to a ledge and was seen from the street “waving his handkerchief.” He called for help. “You could not actually hear him,” reported a witness, “but I could see his mouth moving.”
The man stood for a time, and then “flame came from the first floor window directly below and curled back into the top window, and he went straight back with it.”
Two young women clambered into another window. Nancy Nash and Lois Kennedy, credit department clerks, leapt from the ledge and crashed on to the slates. They were wounded, but alive.
Three more young women appeared at a window. Two fell back into the flames. The third, Violet Cody, a clerk pregnant with her first baby, jumped. She hit the slates, then fell with a thud in the street, mortally wounded.
Those in the streets watched with horror. Those trapped inside fought to stay alive. “They’d rush towards a window, try and get out, and they couldn’t get out,” says Stafford Brooks, a policeman. “They were at the windows, clawing, screaming.”
An office boy saw nightmarish signs of suffering. “The people were terrified, you could tell,” he recalls. “Their heads were searching eagerly, they were clinging like grim death to the sash of the windows, screaming their heads off.”
No others jumped. A man huddled on a high window ledge. A ladder was lifted to his window. Firemen helped him down. The man was Kenneth Ballantyne, and he was the last to escape.
Nwobody need have died in the Ballantynes fire. Half an hour before flashover as more than enough Lime for a slow and careful evacuation. Nobody need have felt frightened. Nobody need even have laddered a stocking.
Stockings, however, were laddered. Skin was scorched, bones broken.
The events on the day of the fire tell us a lot about the relationships and values of those who made up that elaborate world of the department store, a world dominated by propriety, duty and unswerving obedience, where the mass of staff would not even move to save their lives unless the authorities permitted it.
Why did the bosses fail so miserably? Perhaps the idea of their painstakingly built and ordered empire being reduced to rubble by something as brutish as fire was simply beyond comprehension. They tried to deny the flames by reacting in the civilised, correct manner to which they were accustomed. But gentility is no foil for flame, so people perished.
Two parties are needed to create an authoritarian system: authorities to issue orders and subordinates to accept and obey. The dead in the Ballantynes fire were not “authors of their own misfortune,” but they were certainly too obedient.