The first fire broke out in the late afternoon of September 13, 1922, four days after the Turkish Army had entered the city. The blaze began in the Armenian quarter of the city, and spread quickly due to the windy weather and the fact that no effort was made to put it out.
Claflin Davis of the American Red Cross and Monsieur Joubert, Director of the Credit Foncier Bank of Smyrna, witnessed the Turks putting buildings to the torch. When the latter asked the soldiers what they were doing, “They replied impassively that they were under orders to blow up and burn all the houses of the area.”
Two firemen, a Sgt. Tchorbadjis and Emmanuel Katsaros, would later testify in court witnessing Turkish soldiers setting fire to the buildings. When Katsaros complained, one of them commented, “You have your orders … and we have ours. This is Armenian property. Our orders are to set fire to it.”
The spreading fire caused a stampede of people to flee towards the quay, which stretched from the western end of the city to its northern tip, known as the Point. Captain Arthur Japy Hepburn, Chief of Staff of the American naval squadron, described the panic on the quay:
Returning to the street I found the stampede from the fire just beginning. All of the refugees that had been scattered through the streets or stowed in churches and other institutions were moving toward the waterfront. Steadily augmenting this flow were those abandoning their homes in the path of the fire…It was now dark. The quay was already filled with tens of thousands of terrified refugees moving aimlessly between the customs house and the point, and still the steady stream of new arrivals continued, until the entire waterfront seemed one solid mass of humanity and baggage of every description.
The heat from the fire was so intense that Hepburn was worried that the refugees would die as a result of it. The refugees’ situation on the pier on the morning of September 14 was described by the British Lieutenant A. S. Merrill, who believed that the Turks had set the fire to keep the Greeks in a state of terror so as to facilitate their departure:
All morning the glow and then the flames of burning Smyrna could be seen. We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The entire city was ablaze and the harbor was light as day. Thousands of homeless refugees were surging back and forth on the blistering quay – panic stricken to the point of insanity. The heartrending shrieks of women and children were painful to hear. In a frenzy they would throw themselves into the water and some would reach the ship. To attempt to land a boat would have been disastrous. Several boats tried and were immediately stopped by the mad rush of a howling mob…The crowds along the quay beyond the fire were so thick and tried so desperately to close abreast the men-of-war anchorage that the masses in the stifling center could not escape except by sea. Fortunately there was a sea breeze and the quay wall never got hot enough to roast these unfortunate people alive, but the heat must have been terrific to have been felt in the ship 200 yards away. To add to the confusion, the packs belonging to these refugees – consisting mostly of carpets and clothing – caught fire, creating a chain of bonfires the length of the street.
Despite the fact that there were numerous ships from various Allied powers in the harbor of Smyrna during the fire, the vast majority of ships, citing “neutrality”, did not pick up Greeks and Armenians who were forced to flee from the fire and Turkish troops. A Japanese freighter, however, dumped all of its cargo and filled itself to the brink with refugees, taking them to the Greek port of Piraeus and safety.
The fire was completely extinguished by September 22, and on September 24 the first Greek ships entered the harbor to take passengers away, following Captain Hepburn’s initiative and his having obtained permission and cooperation from the Turkish authorities and the British admiral in charge of the destroyers in the harbor.
The number of casualties from the fire and accompanying massacres is not precisely known, with estimates of up to 100,000 Greeks and Armenians killed. U.S. historian Norman Naimark gives a figure of 10,000-15,000 dead, while historian Richard Clogg gives a figure of 30,000. Larger estimates include that of John Freely at 50,000 and Rudolf Rummel at 100,00.