The Most Deadly Fire Disaster in History? Not London, Not Chicago

La Iglesia de la Compana de Jesus, Santiago, Chile, 1863
La Iglesia de la Compana de Jesus fire, Santiago, Chile, 1863

The deadliest fire disaster ever recorded is not where you might think. Not the Great London Fire, not the Great Chicago Fire, not New York City.  It occurred at The Church of the Company of Jesus in Santiago, Chile on December 8th, 1863.  The horrible blaze consumed the church during a Catholic Mass, killing almost three thousand people, mostly women and their families.

La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús was a huge Jesuit cathedral that stood in downtown Santiago.  The terrible fire occurred during the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception no less.  The congregation celebrated this popular Holy Day by decorating the church’s interior with hundred of flowers, candles, oil lamps and ornate, cloth wall coverings.  A statue of the Virgin Mary was moved to the main altar, surrounded by a half-moon shaped candelabra.

It was Santiago’s custom to celebrate this Holy Day with great pomp and passion.

The congregation’s curate had begun a ladies religious society, known as Las Hijas de Maria (the Daughters of Mary) who organized the celebration. It always ended with a grand illumination of the Church’s interior for a mass on Tuesday evening, December 8th.

That fateful year, determined to outdo all prior celebrations, they adorned the interior with long garlands of flowers and an unprecedented number of candles and paraffin oil lamps. The ladies had spent the year weaving ornate cloth tapestries with images of the life of the Virgin Mother. The Archbishop expressed concern over the extravagance, but reluctantly gave his consent.

Towards dusk, a stream of mostly women, both old and young, garbed in their best dresses and gowns, poured into the church until every seat and aisle was packed.  The side doors were then closed, except for the main entrance, so the sound of the hymns and prayers could be heard in the courtyard outside. At a little before seven o’clock, the attendants began lighting up the church. It was truly an amazing site to see the cathedral’s dark interior aglow with thousands of flames and hundreds of intricate tapestries.

The fire started in the middle of mass, a few minutes before 7:00 pm.

One of many oil lamps on the main altar ignited one of the cloth wall hangings behind it.  An attendant jumped up and attempted to smother the flames with another wall cloth. He knocked over the lamp, spilling its flammable oil. This caused the fire to jump to the flanking wall hangings. From there, flames curled up the garlands of flowers to the church’s wooden roof. All this happened rapidlly in a few shocking minutes.

The first few moments were filled with the shock and shrieks of the attendees at the destruction of their beloved altar. They quickly changed to thousands of screams as the flames shot up the walls to the wooden roof. It was clearly time to run for your life! The crowds rushed to the closed side doors only to find they swung inward and were impossible open with the crush of bodies pressing forward. They had been closed in order to create more space for extra worshippers to stand.  Loud screams of horror burst from the panicked masses.

The crowd of mostly women, rosary beads still clutched in their hands, rushed next for the main exit, a single set of doors.  Chilean women of 1863, like those in Europe, wore large hoop skirts. These dresses contributed to the crush of people in the aisles, and the tripping and trampling that ensued as the throng rushed to escape the fire behind them.   Soon the main doors too became blocked by a growing mass of bodies, trapping all the poor souls behind them.

The great wooden dome over the altar caught fire next.

Traveling along the dry ceiling, the flames ran like hissing serpents down the length of the church roof. The lamps suspended from the roof by ropes, snapped and dropped, exploding among the mass of women beneath. Burning embers and firebrands rained down on the compacted crowd. Clothing soon caught fire. Smoke quickly filled the cathedral, making it harder and harder to breathe.

Those out in the plaza stood paralyzed by the horrible sight. The lurid glow inside illuminated the thousands of struggling women, some with faces elevated in prayer, others with hands stretched out towards the door. The scorched and injured sank to the floor, while the stronger battled over them, climbing in desperation. Mothers clasping their little children close, shielding them from the flames, already blistering their own skin. Children clung back in fear.

Outside the church, men desperately tried to chop down the thick side doors. Rescuers at the main doors were seized by dozens of outstretched hands. Imagine seeing those fearful faces and hearing the screams of thousands behind them. They continued to drag out hundreds of the burnt living, until falling roof timbers halted any hope of saving more. The entire floor of the church was now a sea of fire. Thousands of women, from the white-haired to hairless infants, madres, abuelas, hermanas, and hijas began to die.

Gradually, the terrible screams from within grew fainter and fainter.

Soon an awful silence filled the plaza, with only the angry roar of the hellish furnace, that just minutes before been their beloved iglesia. The two bell towers followed the roof within the hour. The belfry fell to earth with an awful crash, burying the scorched bodies and ending their suffering. Many in the plaza knelt silently to pray.

The plaza was filled with the rescued, spread out on the ground. Hundreds of husbands and fathers rushed about, calling the names of loved ones. All the physicians of the city rushed to the plaza, ministering to the burned survivors. Hundreds were taken to Santiago hospitals. Many of those only lived a few hours however, due to their severe burns.

In hindsight, even the most common-sense precautions had not been taken. The absence of any fire brigade at that time contributed to the devastation. Santiago, a city of a hundred thousand, possessed only 3 three steamer engines, all out of order that night. Of the 3,000 persons within the church, only five hundred escaped, and most of them wounded or severely burned.

By midnight, 5 hours later, the flames finally began to subside.

By morning, the church had been reduced to a smoldering heap of black rubble, surrounded by 4 stone walls. By the light of day, the spectacle was indescribably horrible. 2,500 corpses, in every stage of combustion, lay in agonizing mounds inside around the exit doors. The layers of the bodies were disfigured beyond recognition.

All the officiating priests escaped through the vestry door with the holy relics in hand. The vestry door was then closed to keep the fire from spreading to the rectory mansion next door. No doubt hundreds of victims could have found safety through that door. Vocal outrage fumed in the press and public at the near criminal indifference of the priests to the safety of their largely female congregation.

Around 2,500 perished in La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús fire, about 2 to 3 percent of Santiago’s entire population of 100,000 at the time.  Entire families were killed.  Santiago was a city of mourning with the entire Chilean Republic joining in their grief. Clean up of all the victims took 10 gruesome days.  Most bodies were so badly burned they could not be identified. Those pour souls were buried in a mass grave at the Cemetario General de Santiago.

Virgin Mary statue at the site of la Iglesia de la Compana de Jesus
Virgin Mary statue at the site of la Iglesia de la Compana de Jesus

The remains of The Church of the Company of Jesus were eventually destroyed the next year.  A garden was planted in its place which is now a part of the grounds of the Ex Congreso Nacional (former National Congress) on the Calle Compania de Jesus.  A white statue of the Virgin Mary was erected where the main altar had once stood.  The garden and statue still exist today should you visit Santiago, Chile. Pause a moment at its base, ponder the tragic loss of life, and say a short prayer for the fallen women and children.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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