Read The Tribune’s story on the 1943 Victory theater fire
Archives • Three Salt Lake City firefighters died in the blaze.
Published: May 18, 2013 11:28PM
Updated: May 18, 2013 11:28PM
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Three Salt Lake City firefighters lost their lives battling a blaze at the Victory Theater at 48 E. 300 South on May 19, 1943. Courtesy photo

Editors note: The Salt Lake City Fire Department is leading a memorial Sunday for the 70th anniversary of the blaze that killed three firefighters at the Victory theater. Here is the Tribune’s report on that fire, published on May 20, 1943. The article did not have a byline.

The banner headline read: $100,000 Fire Takes 3 Lives. The subhead read: Flames Destroy S.L. Theater; Nine Men Hurt

••••

Trapped under failing debris during the height of one of Salt Lake City’s most devastating downtown fires, three firemen were killed and at least nine others injured Wednesday morning when flames reduced the Victory theater, 48 East Broadway, to a charred shell of teetering walls.

Damage was estimated at between $75,000 and $100,000 from the holocaust, which brought every available piece of equipment from the local fire department to the scene and resulted in auxiliary firemen and police being called to assist in extinguishing the flames and holding the crowds away from the building. First alarm was received at the fire alarm office at 8:24 a.m.

The dead:

Lieutenant Melvin L. Hutch, 2259 Highland Drive.

First Grade Fireman Harry Christenson, 245 Coatsville Avenue.

Third Grade Fireman Theron D. Johnson, 2248 Lake Street.

The three firemen were trapped while playing a hose into the blazing interior of the building from inside the foyer near the entrance to the auditorium. The balcony and second floor of the structure caved, trapping the men.

Fire Chief LaVere M. Hanson, who also was in the foyer at the time, said: “We heard their groans, but we were unable to reach them and make a rescue.”

Assistant Chief Hurt

Assistant Fire Chief Lloyd B. Egan and Captain A. R. Ward were taken from the building after the cave-in. Chief Egan, overcome by smoke, and his eyes gravely irritated, was rushed to the Salt Lake police emergency hospital, while Captain Ward, who was burned on the hands and face, was taken to the LDS hospital.

Fireman Luther A. Stroud, 755 Post Street, was struck by a falling pipe and other debris while attempting to extricate the three fatally injured firemen.

One of the most seriously Injured was Lieutenant William A. Limb, who suffered a back injury when he fell from a ladder. Others injured included Acting Lieutenant Evan H. Hansen, 1616 Edison Street, first and second degree burns on his right hand and left ankle, and overcome by fumes while attempting to free the trio; Fireman F. E. McKinnon, 953 Denver Street, overcome by fumes and irritated eyes. Fireman George R. Kilpatrick, 853 Montague Avenue, right shoulder bruised by falling debris; Fireman Glen D. Crowther, severely sprained left ankle, and Fireman Elmer H. Hansen, 1763 South Second East street, bruises and eye irritation.

Chief Hanson said the fire started near the orchestra pit in the main auditorium and flashed into a major conflagration within a very few minutes.

Probe Under Way

The origin was not immediately determined, but Chief Hanson announced that “there definitely is no sign of incendiarism or arson.”Before embers stopped smoldering Wednesday afternoon an official three-man investigating committee had been appointed from the police and fire departments and the national board of fire underwriters to make a complete investigation.

Chief of Police Reed E. Vetterli appointed Detective W. E. Eggleston to work with Investigator James O. Carver of the fire department and S. R. Waugh, special investigator of the national board of fire underwriters.

By the time all equipment had rolled up to the scene, flames were shooting nearly 100 feet skyward, and billows of smoke could be seen for miles.

A guard of police officers, military police, state highway patrolmen and guards from the Utah ordnance plant immediately blocked off traffic and held early morning workers from crowding too near the theater.

Firemen played streams of water into the fire from all directions, including from the tops of neighboring buildings.

For nearly an hour it appeared that the flames might spread to near-by buildings, but firemen were able to keep them confined to the theater.

Residents of the St. George hotel, 40 East Broadway, which occupies the front portion of the theater building, were taken from their rooms, but at no time did the flames actually reach the hotel quarters.

A driveway, separating Keith O’Brien, Inc., 56 E. Broadway, from the burning structure, enabled firemen to keep the blaze from spreading to the east and the west fire walls protected the building occupied by the Paris company, 28 E. Broadway.

The flames were brought under control within two hours after the blaze was discovered, but timbers were still smoldering in the late evening.

Rumors at the scene were prevalent until early afternoon that other firemen were missing and believed trapped in the building, but an official check-up, completed by early afternoon, showed only three deaths.

Chief of Police Vetterli said more than 50 officers were called out to rope off the crowds and assist the firemen. Shortly after 9 a.m., when the balcony caved in, three ambulances were ordered to the scene to “stand by” in case of emergency.

Bodies Recovered

The body of Fireman Christenson was the first recovered from the debris. Soon thereafter the bodies of Lieutenant Hatch and Fireman Johnson were removed.

Neighboring stores were closed by firemen and city officials until the dangers of the blaze had subsided. Chief Hanson said smoke loss to other buildings and stocks undoubtedly resulted.

However, officials of the Paris company late Wednesday said there was no damage done to their store or stock. The store was closed Wednesday until danger of the west wall of the theater building falling in had passed. The officials explained that the store will be open as soon as this wall can be torn down.

The Auerbach company and Keith O’Brien, Inc., were opened for business Wednesday afternoon, but were closed during the morning hours.

The Jo-Days’ Beauty salon, Economy shoe store and Hughes apparel shop, all in the same building as the theater, were closed all day.

Work of razing the theater walls was begun Wednesday afternoon, and crews were scheduled to work during the night in an effort to remove the menace of the weak shell.

The theater, owned by the Brooks company, was constructed more than 20 years ago. Representatives of the company Wednesday said they could give no definite estimate of the damage until investigation is completed.

Theater Was Closed

The theater had been closed during the past week for renovation. Nine employees were in the structure. Gene Birch of 3594 Seventh East Street, one of the workmen, reported he walked through the theater to the stage about 8 a.m. and about 20 minutes later he and the others smelled smoke.

Opening a door leading from the state go the auditorium, the men saw the blaze and rushed from the building immediately to turn in the alarm.