In the summer of 1883, a traveling variety show made a stop at Victoria Hall in Sunderland, England. Near the end of the show, the entertainers announced to the more than 1,000 children in attendance that upon exiting the Hall, they would be met with a prize.
Anxious to get their hands on whatever gift awaited, hundreds of children rushed down a staircase toward the door. What they didn't know was that the door would not allow for their safe passage. Having been opened inward and bolted to the floor, the door was designed to limit the flow of patrons. As the story goes, the gap between the door and the frame was only wide enough to allow one child to make it through at a time.
But the hundreds of eager children didn't know that, and continued to rush down toward the exit. With nowhere to go, the children at the front of the line were crushed and suffocated. When all was said and done, 183 children lost their lives.
Out of this tragedy, the panic bar was born.
The panic bar, also known as a crash bar, is an unlocking mechanism – usually spring-loaded metal bar – that when pushed, quickly unlatches the lock and allows the door to swing wide open. After the Victoria Hall tragedy, the town decided that doors must open quickly and easily in situations like that, and began fitting public locations with panic bars.
“It is interesting to know that the force of six or seven people pushing in the same direction can generate up to 1,000 lbs of force. Human stampedes can happen out of nowhere so having panic bars in place reduces the risk of tragedy, at least within buildings," says Kevin Klein, E-Commerce Sales Manager for Qualified Hardware, a supplier of high quality door and lock hardware.
Despite Sunderland's decision to make panic bars a requirement, the idea didn't catch on across the pond until two decades later.
In 1903, more than 600 people died at the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. During a performance of the popular musical Mr. Bluebeard, a light shorted out and lit a curtain on fire. As patrons flocked to the exits, many were confronted with unfamiliar locks. Others found themselves trying to open windows that only appeared to be exit doors. Some show-goers were trampled, some were crushed, and others died of smoke inhalation. The Iroquois Theatre Fire remains the most-deadly single building fire in the history of the United States.
This tragedy is what spurred the installation of panic bars across the U.S. These devices has been building code requirements ever since.
“Tragedies like the Iroquois Theater Fire and the Victorian Hall Disaster were devastating. We’re so lucky today to have systems in place to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. And human stampedes still happen. There was a really horrible incident in Cambodia at a Water Festival in 2010 and 465 people died. The most important thing is to learn from these events and put systems in place to make the world safer," says Klein.
"There are organizations like the International Code Council that are committed to standardizing building codes to build a safer world. Panic bars are a part of that code. With proper preparation, tragedy can be avoided.”
In public buildings, panic bars are a no-brainer. They allow people to quickly exit and avoid being caught up in the logjam that occurs when too many people are clamoring toward an exit that simply can't accommodate the flow. As Qualified Hardware's Klein says, human stampedes can happen out of nowhere, and panic bars have and will continue to save lives.