BABBS — They both carried scars.
The fire burned Margaret Biggers' hands and arms so badly that her then 4-year-old daughter, Lillie, never shook the image of doctors tending to her mother.
Biggers and her daughters, Lillie and Bessie, 12, survived the Christmas Eve 1924 fire in the tiny rural Oklahoma hamlet of Babbs Switch in Kiowa County, but the family's boys, William, 9, and Walter, 15, did not. The fire during a Christmas program is considered among the most devastating fires in Oklahoma's history.
In all, 36 died, almost half of them children, after a burning candle on a Christmas tree turned a tiny, crowded schoolhouse into an inferno. The occurrence during the Christmas season magnified the sense of tragedy.
Decades later, Lillie Biggers remembered very little about that night, but she did remember her mother, riding in the back seat of a Model T Ford with her damaged hand and arm out the window trying to alleviate the excruciating pain with cold air, according to one of Lillie Bigger's children.
"It had been traumatic for a little girl to see her mother in so much pain," said Bill Braun, Lillie Biggers Braun's 65-year-old son.
There is no commemoration planned this year — the 90th anniversary of the fire — which happened a few miles south of Hobart in Kiowa County, about 100 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.
There are no survivors of the Babbs Switch fire left, locals say. Lillie Biggers Braun died in 2012 at 92. Joe Hebensperger, 11 at the time of the fire, was the last known survivor. He died last year at 99.
"Babbs still evokes tears," said Bill Hancock, who grew up in Hobart and whose family owns The Hobart Democrat-Chief newspaper. "It always will."
"People in the community are strong," Hancock said. "Their culture is farming, and farmers must be resilient in order to manage the ups and downs of that industry. The spirit of the community is hardy, and it was honed by Babbs."
Nine decades on, the fire's legacy transcends sadness; because of the Babbs Switch catastrophe and others like it, reforms were enacted throughout Oklahoma and elsewhere to make schools and public buildings safer.
About 200 community members arrived at the one-story schoolhouse that evening for a Christmas Eve program despite heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures. They packed into the tiny structure, whose windows were covered with metal wiring to keep out prowlers drawn by the nearby railroad tracks.
After the program concluded, a teenage boy dressed in a Santa suit who was handing toys and candy to the children bumped a cedar Christmas tree. A lit candle ignited paper decorations, tinsel and dry needles.
Panic spread. In an instant the tree, stage curtains and, then, the structure caught fire.
Lillie Biggers crawled out from under a desk and followed her mother. Like some other children escaping the fire, she grabbed her new toy on the way out — a doll. Another child, a boy, somehow made his way back into the building for his toy and never came back out, according to accounts from the time.
The panicked crowd crushed toward the only exit, the schoolhouse door, which only opened inward. Women, men and children screamed as the throng struggled to wedge themselves through the partly-open door.
A few who escaped tried to return to save loved ones or pull a few lucky victims through the door until flames and the surging mob inside made it impossible. A few tried and failed to pry the wire off the windows.
Just 15 of 33 school children survived the blaze.
Lillie Biggers Braun never understood how her mother, Margaret, was able to carry on.
"She just didn't know how my grandmother handled the losses of those sons," said Judy Brown, 70, Lillie Biggers Braun's daughter. "She never knew how she went on, but, I guess you have no choice."
Brown, a retired medical technologist from Oklahoma City, said she suspects the help provided by neighbors to those in need, like her grand-parents, helped the mily keep family keep moving forward.
"They supported each other because everybody had a loss of some sort," Brown said. "That was a lot to do with it."
Newspapers around the country carried stories about the fire. Some accounts at the time noted an appreciation for the "Hobart Spirit," a precursor, some might say, to what became known as the Oklahoma Standard in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
"I have seldom, if ever, seen a community respond as has Hobart," wrote Walter T. Brown in a Dec. 30, 1924, Associated Press story published in The Hobart Democrat-Chief.
Newspaper columnists and politicians quickly framed the tragedy as a warning of what might happen when safety precautions are ignored in public buildings.
In the wake of the fire, Oklahoma's Legislature passed laws and pushed safety campaigns to prevent a similar tragedy, according to The Oklahoman archives. Officials evaluated schools throughout the state for fire hazards. Oklahoma schools replaced inward-opening doors with doors that opened outward. Schools added exits and screens that could be opened from the outside, purchased fire extinguishers for every room and banned open flames.
The movement stretched beyond schools and beyond Oklahoma as public policy nationwide shifted toward eliminating fire hazards in all public buildings.
Still, the changes took time and that cost more lives.
Between 1908 and 1958, school fires in just eight states, including Oklahoma's Babbs Switch fire, would kill at least 755 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Among the tragedies: A March 4, 1908, fire at the Lakeview School in Colling-wood, Ohio, killed 173 students and two teachers; 294 children and teachers perished at a school in the aftermath of a gas explosion on March 18, 1937, in New London, Texas. And a Dec. 1, 1958, fire at Our Lady of the Angel, a Chicago elementary school, killed 90 students and three nuns.
Following the Chicago fire, states enacted better fire safety codes for schools and more strictly enforced existing codes, said Robert Solomon, division manager for building and life safety code for the National Fire Protection Association.
Until then, school fire tragedies, often in small communities or rural areas, had failed to spark any widespread reforms.
Solomon believes the location of the Chicago fire in a large media market, combined with horrifying images of children at the windows, gelled a nationwide movement to make school buildings safer.
"When you start to see pictures, that's when people realize, 'This is a real thing,'" Solomon said.
The bodies of the two little boys from the Biggers family who died on Christmas Eve were identified by the objects they had carried. William, 9, held a toy gun. Walter, 15, wore a belt buckle.
The children were among the victims buried side-by-side in coffins in a long mass grave in Hobart Rose Cemetery.
Bill Braun, Lillie Biggers' Braun's son, now has the toy gun and buckle, reminders of the boys' short time on earth and the tragedy that took them.
The Babbs Switch school was replaced in August 1925. When the district was annexed into Hobart and Roosevelt in 1943, Babbs Switch closed for good.
Today, a stone monument marks the spot where the burned schoolhouse once stood.