Sunday, February 23, 2020

The St. Anthony's Hospital Fire in Effingham, Illinois. (1949)

Like much of the United States, Effingham, Illinois, experienced rapid growth in the years after World War II. 
St. Anthony's Hospital as it appeared before the 1949 fire.
St. Anthony’s Hospital in Effingham had been the county’s only hospital since 1873, but in 1949 the region was quickly outgrowing the small facility. Operated by the Sisters of St. Francis, who lived in a convent next door, the hospital was sanitary and well-kept, but completely outdated. Constructed mainly out of wood and brick, the 100-bed hospital contained open corridors and staircases and many of the walls were covered with oilcloth fabrics and combustible soundproof tiles. The city was planning to build a larger, modern hospital in 1951, but tragedy struck on April 4, 1949.
St. Anthony's Hospital on fire on April 4, 1949.
Shortly before midnight, a massive fire broke out at St. Anthony’s Hospital, spreading rapidly through the building. As the hospital had no architectural components that controlled fire, the flames easily burned through the wood and plaster interior. Many of the 116 patients were immediately trapped on the upper floors, including disabled elderly residents, injured patients stuck in casts, splints, and traction devices, and a nursery full of newborn babies. A few brave doctors and nurses helped some escape, returning to the burning building multiple times to rescue patients, but the fire was too strong. Ultimately, 74 people were killed, including patients, nurses, nuns, a priest, and a hospital superintendent who ran into the flames to try to rescue his wife.

As the hospital had no fire alarm system, valuable time was lost before someone was able to set off the town’s fire siren. All but one of the 26-man Effingham Volunteer Fire Department arrived within ten minutes of hearing the siren, but by that time the fire had already burned through the hospital roof. Rescue efforts were further impeded as the small department had only three pumping engines. Until mutual aid departments arrived on scene hours after the blaze started, the firefighters had no ladder truck or other aerial apparatus to use to rescue victims from the otherwise inaccessible upper floors of the hospital. In the end, with the assistance of eleven mutual aid departments from as far away as 66 miles, firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading elsewhere, but the hospital was virtually destroyed.

Although the cause of the fire remains unknown, investigators had little trouble pinpointing the safety deficiencies at St. Anthony’s Hospital. The combination of the combustible building materials in the open corridors, stairwells, and vertical shafts, along with the lack of fire sprinklers, detectors, and alarms had essentially doomed the hospital as soon as the fire began. In response, Governor Adlai Stevenson ordered the State Fire Marshal to evaluate all of Illinois’ hospitals to pinpoint and correct any fire hazards. Many other hospitals throughout the country also improved their fire safety measures in an effort to avoid similar disasters. In fact, as a direct result of the fire at St. Anthony’s, modern hospitals now incorporate numerous fire safety features to protect patients who cannot be quickly evacuated, including fire barriers, smoke compartments, and stairway enclosures.
Every person who died in the fire that night had a unique personal history. Here are a few of their stories:

Staff
Shirley Clements, a 22-year-old registered nurse, wasn’t supposed to be there that night. She and her husband, Hilary Clements, had a 9-month-old daughter, and Shirley was working an extra private-duty shift before a planned break from nursing to be at home with her baby. She assisted patients out of the building, jumping once from the first floor. She then re-entered the building to retrieve more patients, but this time her uniform caught fire and she escaped by jumping again, from an upper-floor window, suffering severe burns and broken bones. Shirley refused immediate treatment, stating that she knew she could not live and requested that others be treated instead. She was transported, accompanied by her husband, to a hospital at Granite City, Illinois, near her hometown of Belleville. Although listed as a survivor in early reports, Shirley succumbed to her injuries on Tuesday, April 5, 1949, the evening after the fire.

Fern Riley, a 22-year-old practical nurse who worked in the second-floor nursery, refused to leave and died with the 11 newborns there. Others were jumping to escape the flames, but she undoubtedly saw no way to get the fragile babies to safety. Her body was later found in the nursery with them. Fern grew up in the nearby town of Holliday, Illinois, one of a family of ten children. Her story was featured in a number of newspaper and magazine articles about the tragedy.

Frank Ries, the building engineer who lived next door, was off duty and at home that night, but his wife was working at the hospital. He entered the burning building, where he attempted to extinguish the flames involving a laundry chute that ran from the top floor of the building. His wife, Marie, on duty on the second floor, was able to escape by jumping from a window. Although severely injured in the fall, she was taken to a hospital in another town and survived. Frank, however, did not escape the fire. His body was later found in the basement level with emptied fire extinguishers nearby. Frank was born in 1900 in Recklinghausen, Germany. He was survived by his wife and four children, as well as two brothers living in Illinois and two brothers and a sister in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Sister Eustachia Gatki was found near a window with some of her third-floor patients, none of whom survived. Sister Eustachia was born at Boleslawiec, Silesia, in 1895.

Sister Bertina Hinricher was found on the second floor, huddled with a small group of patients who were unable to escape. She was a native of Holtwick, Germany, born in 1887.

Reverend Fr. Charles Sandon, age 52, was the hospital chaplain. He was born in Decatur, Illinois, and was ordained a priest in 1922. His body was found in his room on the second floor.

Patients
Doris Brummer, a 12-year-old girl, was hospitalized with a broken leg and was unable to escape the fire.

Edward Brummer, Jr., newborn son of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Brummer and the nephew of young Doris, died in the nursery.

Harold Gentry was spending the night at the hospital with his infant son, Harold Dennis Gentry. Harold's wife, Ina, had given birth six weeks before to the baby boy, who had been readmitted for treatment. Both father and son died in the fire.

Floyd Mascher, age 35, had been admitted to the hospital for surgery. Her husband, Floyd, was at home with their 2-year-old daughter. (Floyd Mascher and Ina Gentry later met and married. They went on to have a son together and raised him along with Floyd's daughter.)

Evan Kabalzyk, an elderly Russian immigrant, had been blinded years before in a coal mining accident and was said to be able to navigate the building with ease. He resided in the nursing home area on the third floor.

Eileen and Irene Sigrist, week-old twin daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Russell Sigrist, had been born at home and then taken to the hospital for nursing care. The babies were the third set of twins born to their parents. The Sigrists would later donate the first $100 toward the rebuilding fund.

Resulting Fire Safety Awareness
The Effingham fire prompted a review of fire safety and building standards at hospitals nationwide, with emphasis on:
  • Construction of buildings
  • Storage of equipment
  • Evacuation planning
  • Fire alarms, extinguishers, and training.
The official report of the state fire marshal found that the fire had been fed by flammable cellulose ceiling tiles, oilcloth wall coverings, fresh paint, freshly varnished wood floors, and open stairwells. In addition, oxygen and ether tanks exploded in a basement storage area, further feeding the blaze.

Although the initial cause of the fire was never officially determined, smoke was first noted to be emanating from a wooden laundry chute. It was speculated that a smoldering cigarette may have been gathered up with patient bedding and tossed down the chute, where it finally ignited the surrounding material.

Fire codes implemented as a result of the St. Anthony's fire included requirements for smoke and fire barriers as well as fire-resistant enclosed stairways

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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