Opera house fire 1987


Frankfurt’s fire brigade’s report: The Städtische Bühnen’s fly tower was totally destroyed by fire on November 12th 1987.
The destroyed opera house
It all started on November 12th 1987, a cold, wet and windy night, when an ionization detector in the ceiling above the auditorium set off fire alarms at 03.19am. This automatically set off alarms in the theatre and city’s fire departments. Three fire engines where rushing to the scene while two in house firemen, trying to find the cause, soon came across thick smoke. The fire engines arrived only five minutes after the alarm went off. They still had no idea of what was yet to come. The two in house firemen opened doors so that the engines could enter and turned off the electricity in the theatre. Everyone then tried to find the source of the fire. The fire chief said: "Unmistakable sounds and loud crackles led the way to the burning fly tower. Attempts to open the doors were made impossible because of the enormous pressure that had built up inside. The view of the stage from the auditorium was terrifying. The closed 16 ton iron curtain glowed red. Lighting towers on both sides of the stage were on fire and the intense heat has already badly damaged the first few rows of seats in the stalls. The house firemen began fighting the fire in the auditorium. The men from the fire brigade tried to fight their way to the source of the fire."

It is now clear that the whole fly tower is on fire and further fire engines were summoned at 03.33am. The fly tower collapsed seven minutes later, raining fire down onto Neue Mainzer Straße where the fire fighters, and first bystanders, were assembled. Eye witnesses report that flames 20 metres high licked their way into the night sky from the building. More and more fire fighters took up position but the fire, whipped up by the wind, was not to be beaten. Clouds of sparks carried by the wind threatened the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof Hotel and the volunteer fire brigade from Niederrad were ordered to prevent other nearby buildings from catching fire. A television camera set up on the roof of the other half of the theatre helped the fire chief get a better view of the catastrophe and see how best to deploy his men. So many hoses are now being used that water is running out. The men from Niederrad connected two hoses to the river Main (Untermainbrücke – bridge). More fire engines arrive. The chief, knowing what dangers can lie in wait for his men in these situations, orders regular head counts. By now every available fire engine is at the theatre. The chief puts out the call to the voluntary fire brigades in Enkheim, Hausen, Oberrad, Seckbach and Unterliederbach to man the city’s fire fighting centres in order to be able to deal with any other emergencies that might break out. The stage is now a picture of distruction, the floor covered by an enormous tangled mess of steel girders, charred wood, iron bars, collapsed walls and destroyed scenery, hiding nests of fires from view. And then, to crown it all, the scenery builders’ paint store caught fire. The firemen fought desperately and managed to put it out. Firemen were also able to rescue musical instruments valued at €150,000 from a rehearsal room.

It was not until six days later that the fire brigade could confirm that the fire was finally out. The tasks of pumping water from the cellars and clearing away the mess began.

How did the fire start? A man managed to climb in through a window, apparently looking for something to eat. Angry at finding nothing he set fire to some newspapers and used them to burn some scenery. He fled when he realised that his little bonfire was turning into a major fire. He rang the police same night and admitted to having started the fire. The officer involved managed to keep him talking long enough for the call to be traced. A car was sent to arrest him. He was sent to prison for seven years but was released after he had served two thirds of his sentence.

The fire that destroyed the fly tower also badly affected other parts of the building and forced everyone involved used to the luxury of modern machinery to improvise for three years. The Schauspiel (drama theatre in the same building as the opera) were more than generous in volunteering to move into a hastily adapted Bockenheimer Depot (which turned out to be a splendid venue that is still used today by the opera, straight theatre and dance companies) so that the opera could perform on their stage.

Rebuilding the damaged parts of the Opera House took almost three and a half years. Two good things came about after this dreadful catastrophe: the theatre ended up with brand new, state of the arts modern machinery and fire prevention and detection methods were optimised so as to rule out the possibility of a fire not being dealt with before it can get out of hand.
May
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LANDSCHAFT MIT ENTFERNTEN VERWANDTEN
(Landscape with distant relations)
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