Apr 13 1931: the Chicago tunnel fire

Chicago tunnel fire Apr 13 1931
Photo from Chicago Tribune archives

When I was a kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I crawled into a sleeping bag head first, and one of my brothers, as a joke, sat on my legs — essentially closing the open end of the bag and sending me into a squirming fit of screams and tears.

While I might have had some claustrophobic tendencies before, I think this little incident probably sealed the deal.

It also might have contributed to my lifelong (arm’s length) fascination for tunnels, holes, caves, and other dark, damp, confining spaces into which humans often are not meant to go — and from which they sometimes don’t return.

Such is the case with the Chicago tunnel fire of 1931. On April 13th — as luck would have it —  that tunnel was a very unlucky place to be. It was a sewer tunnel being built on 22nd Street, a major east-west artery in the southwest part of the city. Some workers lit a candle to try to find the source of a leak, and some sawdust ignited. The workmen became trapped, and city officials responded by sending team after rescue team down into the blaze. Many of them, in turn, became trapped and died.

The mere thought of being 35 feet below street level in a dark, smoke-filled tunnel makes me queasy. According to the Chicago Tribune, many of the firefighters went down without oxygen tanks or even masks. Ah, the good ole days.

Here is some archival pix of the fire from the Chicago Tribune, and below are a few videos of other claustrophobic-inducing places, especially on Friday the 13th.

Tunnelling under the Thames in 1958  If you like historic video, you must subscribe to the British Pathé channel, where this clip comes from. I so admire the men who did this very hard, very dangerous work. It is not for the faint of heart. ttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP6Lcq-ZV04  (1 min, 58 sec)

Kids in a train tunnel (and guess what comes through)  Who would DO this? I mean, I was a kid too, once (on a planet far, far away) and I like to think I was somewhat adventurous too. But I would never have walked into a dark, in-use train tunnel. (Though I did jump onto the subway tracks once — and it’s not what you think — but that’s a blog for another day.) I suggest watching the first 30 sec or so, then skipping ahead to about 7:00, when the kids are starting to scurry and get jittery — and then off in the dark, a whistle goes… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJ1g0-z949g&t=448s (12 min, 28 sec)

Man trapped in a tuna cooker  I will say right off that while this involves a death, it’s a CGI re-enactment, and you can see what’s coming before it happens. Amazing (or not) how a seemingly simple human error could have such devastating impact. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu69H9HDCrQ  (1 min, 22 sec)

Tight cave squeeze  This video comes with a warning (that is not mine): Do NOT watch if claustrophobic. Next to drowning, I think this is my own personal “worst way to go”. And in the words of one of the commenters: “What gets you thinking is the fact that somebody crawled through that the first time, not knowing if there was an exit they could climb out of…” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp0qUNmZPIk (3 min, 55 sec)

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