March 19, 2015

The Babb Switch Fire

The Babb Switch Fire

© Jack Coffee

What has become known to many Coffey researchers as the Babb Switch fire, occurred on Christmas Eve, 1924 near Hobart in Kiowa Co., OK.  By the time all the bodies had been recovered and identification of all victims made, a total of 35* people died that night in a school house fire.

It was Christmas Eve and a large number of area families had come together to celebrate and treat the youngsters to an evening of joy.

As news reports of the day explain, “Death entered the Christmas celebration suddenly, cutting off at its hight [sic] the program rendered by the children of the neighborhood.”  Santa, in his normal costume of red with white fur, had just about finished handing out small bags of sweets.  As he leaned in to retrieve more of the small candy sacks, his arm hit one of the lit candles on the tree causing the tree to burst into flames. 

As the folks tried to put out the fire, the tree fell over scattering flames.  People began to panic and all begin to rush the single door that lead to safety.  Some went to the windows but they “were covered by a heavy wire netting.”  The door opened inwardly but the frenzied crowd was jammed against it.

Panic grew as heat caused window glass to shatter.  Wind rushing in fed the flames and the old wooden school began to blaze, as some reported, “like firewood.”

Those that were injured while escaping the flames, were rushed to Hobart .

Six in the family of Thomas C. Coffey died that night: Thomas, his wife Beulah and children Ethel, age about 12; Maud, age about 17; Orley, age about 5 and Aubrey M., age about 26.  Reports say that Aubrey was to be married and that her fiancĂ© was also killed that night.

Witnesses tell how the Coffey family, surrounded by flames and unable to move in any direction, clasped one another in their arms and silently went to the floor together as blazing beams began to fall around and onto them.

The Coffey family and other victims were buried at Hobart Rose Cemetery in Hobart.  Today a red granite tablet stands at the site, engraved with a short tale of how the fire began and lists in memory all of the names of those who died.

Accounts of this fire can be found in newspapers all across the nation.  From the Richmond Times Dispatch in Virginia of Dec., 26, 1924 to Evansville Courier and Press in Indiana, The Idaho Statesman in Boise, Springfield Republican in MA, and on and on, thus magnifying the tragedy and sadness felt all across the country.  Babb Switch was not the only fire in America that Christmas Eve, but the overwhelming number of deaths and injuries was the one that captured our interest.  Babb Switch was rebuilt as a model for safer construction of school houses.  It was dismantled in 1943.  In earlier years, the wood structure had survived a fire and a tornado but no deaths or injuries.

I have been unable to discover who Thomas’ father was.  One family tree names his wife as Beulah Gertrude Rather.  The family appeared in the 1900 through 1920 OK census. 

Checking earlier records I found who I believe to be this Thomas in the 1880 Stephens Co., TX household with James Coffey, born c1833 in IL and his wife Elizabeth, born c1842 in VA.  Children in the household then were: Thomas, George W., Anderson M., Mary T., Willis H., George Barrott, and Catherine.

Anyone with knowledge of this family's ancestry please contact me.

*Most news reports tell of 33 deaths.  The tablet referred to above reports 35 deaths with names to support that number.

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