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Worst fire largely unknown

SUN JOURNAL

Disaster: In 1871, a firestorm in Wisconsin killed an estimated 2,500 people and scorched an area twice the size of Rhode Island.

October 10, 2003|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A 21-year-old man fleeing the blaze realized he couldn't outrun it and stabbed himself several times in the chest with a penknife. The fire skipped him, and he lived; the penknife hadn't struck deep enough.

Another man hanged himself on the bucket chain of a well. Wiltzius's great-grandfather was killed when he got caught under a burning tree while trying to escape with his youngest daughter. He was five miles west of Peshtigo.

People who fled to the Peshtigo River for safety had to keep ducking into the water. The air was so hot it set hair on fire and singed exposed body parts. Many who went into the river with babies lost them. Terrorized residents also had to deal with debris, horses, cows and other animals struggling to survive in the river. And the water was ice cold.

"It's another paradox of the fire. The myth is the water was hot, too. But a fast-moving fire isn't going to heat water," Lutz says. "People who went into their wells for safety didn't boil to death. Well covers burned and collapsed onto them, killing them. "A lot of people heard the sounds and, thinking it was a tornado, went to their storm cellars. They were cooked in their cellars. They found bodies and body parts for years."

Firefighters know Peshtigo. The combination of wind, topography and fire that created the firestorm is known as the Peshtigo Paradigm. The elements that created it were studied and recreated by the American and British military during World War II for the fire bombings of German and Japanese cities.

"It's amazing," Lutz says. "I read a Japanese account of what the fire bombing was like in Tokyo. If you took out three or four words, you were describing Peshtigo."

The world might have forgotten, but Peshtigo hasn't.

Its small and unpolished museum displays artifacts that survived the fire. In the cemetery next door, a mass grave site contains the remains of 350 unidentified fire victims. The graves of other victims are scattered throughout the cemetery.

No one knows for sure how many died - population records were destroyed in the fire, and no one knew how many new immigrants lived there, attracted by the lumbering industry.

Every year on the fire's anniversary, a candlelight memorial service is held in front of the former church. Robert "Cubby" Couvillion, historian for the Peshtigo Historical Society, recounts some details of the fire. The bells toll, and then the museum closes for the season.

"I end by saying that today Peshtigo has beautiful wide shaded trees, well-kept lots and nice homes," Couvillion says.

"But beneath the town's streets are layers of ashes of the city and many of its people. Nobody now recalls the faces of those people. There are very few who even remember the names. But we need to remember what happened here and the people who died on the streets of Peshtigo 132 years ago."

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