Church of the Company Fire
The Church of the Company Fire (December 8, 1863) is the largest fire ever to have affected the city of Santiago, Chile. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people died, probably the most people to die in an accidental fire in any one building anywhere in the world.
The Church of the Company of Jesus, (Spanish: Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús) was a Jesuit church located in downtown Santiago. The day of the fire was the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, one of the most popular festivities of the religious calendar, and the temple was adorned with a profusion of candles and oil lamps and wall coverings. In the main altar, a large statue of the virgin Mary stood over a half-moon that in itself was a huge candelabra.
That night, the fire started a few minutes before 7 PM, when an oil lamp at the top of the main altar ignited some of the veils that adorned the walls (some early accounts blamed a gas lamp, as people tried to make sense of the shocking tragedy amid old and new technology, but the church was not equipped with gas. The error, like the news itself, was copied by newspapers as far away as Australia). By a flaw in design, the church of Compañía had doors that swung inward. A strong wind blew the doors open during the liturgy. This wind knocked a candle off the podium and disrupted the meeting of worshippers. The burning candle roared through the church which resulted in the church's destruction. More than 2500 people died in the fire.
Somebody tried to put it out by smothering it with another cloth, but managed only to make the fire jump over to the rest of the veils and from there on to the wood roof. The mostly women attendees panicked and tried to escape but the side doors had been closed in order to leave space to accommodate more people (they could be opened only inwards), leaving the main entrance as the only exit. Upon being notified of the tragedy, U.S. Envoy to Chile Thomas H. Nelson rushed to the scene and assisted in rescue operations. Several days after the fire, Nelson was recognized as a "true hero of Chile."
The big hoop skirts worn at the time made escape very difficult if not impossible, causing the people at the front to fall down and be trampled by the ones behind. Very soon the main entrance was blocked by a human wall of bodies, impeding both the exit of the ones trapped inside, and entry of rescuers. The main tower of the church was built of wood (while the rest of the church was solid masonry) and finally collapsed inwards around 10 PM, putting an end to the few remaining survivors.
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people perished in the fire, in a city that at the time had about 100,000 inhabitants. Entire families were wiped out. The cleanup of the bodies took about ten days, and since most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, they were placed in a mass grave at the Cementerio General de Santiago. The remaining walls of the church were torn down, and a garden was planted in the place, with a statue placed at the site where the main altar used to be. A few years later a second statue replaced the first. The garden and the statues still exist. At present the second statue is part of the Ex Congreso Nacional gardens. The original statue is located at the main entrance of the Cementerio General de Santiago. The Church bells were sold for scrap and recovered and four made their way to Mumbles, Wales, where they were used to call people to worship, until being returned to Santiago in 2010. Two of the returned bells now hang next to the statue in the Ex Congreso Nacional gardens, one in the courtyard of the Cuartel General de Bomberos, and one at the 14th Fire Company firehouse in Providencia. One bell stayed in Santiago, where it was hung in the Hermita de Santa Lucia on the Cerro Santa Lucia in 1872-3, the dent from where it fell marking it as a memorial. The tragedy, and the fact that one of the contributing factors was the lack of an organized fire-brigade, motivated José Luis Claro y Cruz to organize the first Volunteer Firemen's Corps in Santiago, on December 20 of the same year. Fire brigades in Chile, even today, are still made up only of unpaid volunteers. New fire regulations also resulted, and the tragedy contributed to the partial secularization of Chilean government over the next two decades.
Workers excavating for a new line of the Santiago Metro uncovered an unexpected length of the eastern foundation of the church in November 2013. Some Santiaguinos are trying to have the foundation preserved as a memorial.
- The New York Times, January 18, 1864
- "Church bells to return to Chile". BBC News. February 8, 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-08.
- "Neath church returns historic bell to Earl of Wessex for Chilean fire service". Church in Wales (Press release). September 22, 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- Sol Serrano, Qué hacer con Dios en la República (Mexico, DF: Fondo de Cultura Economica, c. 2009), passim.
- The New York Times: "TERRIFIC TRAGEDY IN CHILI; Two Thousand Five Hundred Persons Roasted to Death in a Church." (January 18, 1864)
- Nuestro.cl - The fire with pictures of the aftermath
- Eglise de la Compagnie a San-Yago du Chili, Le Monde Ilustre (13 feb. 1864) French article with picture on page 100.
- PANICS IN PUBLIC PLACES. Launceston Examiner (12 Apr 1864)
- Brief story of the church (Spanish)