Ville Platte residents search for those who died in the Great Dance Hall Fire of 1919. (Photo courtesy of Ville Platte Fire Department Facebook page)
Residents recall the Great Dance Hall Fire of 1919
By: TONY MARKS
and NANCY DUPLECHAIN
The date November 22, 1963, is forever etched into the American psyche as the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas’ Dealy Plaza.
However, 44 years before a bullet from the alleged lone gunman struck the president from the grassy knoll, a tragic event happened locally which has faded from memory like a fainting puff of smoke.
Oddly enough, this tragic event surrounded just that ... a puff of smoke.
“On the evening of November 22, 1919, twenty-five persons lost their lives in a fire which destroyed a two-story frame building, the upper story of which was used as a dance hall, while the first floor comprised a grocery and restaurant of doubtful reputation, a clothing store and a motion picture theatre,” reported the official investigative report by Louisiana’s first Fire Marshal, W.M. Campbell, on the 1919 Dance Hall tragedy in Ville Platte.
The hall was located inside the G.J. Deville Building on Main Street
The report continued, “The fire had its origin in the grocery and restaurant. It appears that the wife of the proprietor was warming some coffee at the kerosene oil stove when the tank ran dry. She instructed a boy employee to fill the tank, which he did from a can at the back of the store. When he reattached the tank to the stove, she again lighted the latter, but the burner immediately exploded, scattering burning oil over the stove and the floor.”
The fire began to spread to the theatre and, according to the report, worked “its way up inside the partition wall, burned through the floor of the dance hall about in the middle of the building.”
The report continued, “At once there was a rush for the only staircase, and the panic-stricken dancers found themselves jammed in the stairway and confronted by an equally panic-stricken crowd which was madly fighting its way up in an insane attempt at rescue. The result was a scene of indescribable horror; many of those who escaped were only able to get out by walking on top of those who were already jammed in the stairway. Finally the staircase collapsed under its human burden, causing the partition wall which separated it from the clothing store to give way. Those who were not already dead or badly injured were then able to reach the street through the store.”
Ville Platte historian and City Councilman Mike Perron said of the tragedy, “What I thought was so touching was that they all got jammed at the door, and they took the babies and handed them over the crowd to save the babies. It’s probably the worst thing to happen to Ville Platte that I know of. It’s very tragic. It’s something that can never be forgotten.”
Ville Platte native and fellow historian Fr. Richard Vidrine shared his memories of hearing stories of the tragedy from his father, Morris, who was a little boy of six-years at the time.
Fr. Vidrine stated his grandfather, who was living in the Tate Cove Community, was building his house on what is now Tate Cove Rd. in Ville Platte across from the present day Champagne’s.
“When he got home,” Fr. Vidrine said, “he could see this orange glow coming from the Ville Platte direction. He said, ‘My house is on fire.’ So, he got back on his horse and went back to town. As he got close, he saw it wasn’t his house. He went on further and saw it was the dance hall that was burning.”
Current Training Officer for the Ville Platte Fire Department Chris Soileau commented, “If anything good came out of it, that incident contributed to the updates to the Life Safety Code over the years. The code covers occupancy safety in buildings. It’s a standard that deals with exiting, building capacity, doorway requirements. All of that together is egress, the way people get out of a building. That fire was a studied incident over the next several decades. We learned from that tragedy not to repeat it. The stairwell collapsing wasn’t a good situation. Before the fire, Ville Platte had, at best, a volunteer fire department with a bucket brigade. After the fire, our fire department was established in 1920. The first motorized fire engine acquired was not until seven years later in 1927.”
The VPFD currently maintains records such as the fire marshal’s investigative report along with a print of the special cable to The New York Times and other media coverage from The Charlotte Observer and the St. Landry Clarion. These records and pictures from the tragedy can be viewed on the Ville Platte Fire Department’s Facebook page.
According to the special cable, most of those who died or injured in the tragedy were women and girls. It went on to report, “The identified dead in the fire at Ville Platte last night are:
Miss Anna Robiero, Miss Octav Barre, Miss Etta Barre, Miss Lena Guillory, Mr. and Mrs. Curley Soileau and daughter, Andre Vidrene, Mrs. Zelma Johnson, Culver West, Bernadat Fontenot, and Miss Ozette Buillon. Other bodies recovered have not been identified.”