Vintage: The 1949 St Anthony Hospital Fire in Illinois, US
A massive fire in St Anthony Hospital in Illinois in the US killed 77 people on the night of 4 April 1949. The fire, probably started by a smouldering cigarette in a laundry chute, spread quickly due to the internal cladding being mostly wood. There were no sprinklers or fire alarms in the building and these factors contributed to the need for a review of fire safety and building standards at hospitals nationwide. The glow in the night sky grew brighter over Effingham, Illinois that night and by midnight the inferno was beyond control. St Anthony Hospital, the only hospital in Effingham County, was run by the Sisters of the Order of St Francis. The main portion of the three-storey brick building dated from 1876, with several additions constructed later. At about 23h45 on the night of 4 April 1949, one of the nurses smelled smoke and alerted Sister Anastasia at the switchboard, who phoned the fire department; the hospital engineer, Frank Ries, who lived next door and Sister Superior Ceciliana at the adjacent convent.
Sister Eustachia was working on the third-floor pensioners' unit when she became aware of smoke. She awoke 50-year-old orderly Ben Biedenharn, who was sleeping in his third-floor room, then went to check on her patients. Biedenharn determined that the smoke was coming from a laundry chute and that the fire must be downstairs. He took the elevator to the first floor and found fire in the corridors of the first and second floors. Biedenharn then attempted to return to the third floor to rescue patients there but by this time the elevator wiring had been damaged, leaving it inoperable. Running outside to try to gain access via an exterior fire escape, he was driven back by flames shooting from the second-floor windows. Even after sustaining burn injuries to both hands, however, he was able to assist several patients out of first-floor windows.
Although the fire department was located nearby, the flames spread very rapidly, fuelled by combustible materials throughout the building. The volunteer force of approximately 20 men assembled as quickly as possible but it was too late to save the building. Obviously, the primary focus of the fire chief at that point was on saving as many lives as possible. At the end of the night, only the scorched brick outer walls of the old hospital remained standing.
Although the building was equipped with fire extinguishers, hoses and exterior fire escape stairs and chutes, there was no fire alarm system or sprinklers. Interior doors and trim were of wood. Interior wooden stairwells were open and there were no fire doors. Laundry chutes traveling from the top floor to the basement were made of wood. Transoms over interior doors and open windows allowed the fire to spread faster. Apparently staff had not been trained with fire drills or in emergency patient evacuation. The third floor housed 30 elderly pensioners who all perished. The fire chief later stated that the fire department's ladders could not reach the third floor.
In the days following the fire, a pall hung over the small city of 8 000 people. Recovery efforts continued. Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson activated members of the National Guard to assist at the fire scene. He later spoke at an emergency organisational meeting of the city council for the purposes of establishing a temporary hospital and applying for necessary relief funds.
Residents gradually resumed their routines, while the list of confirmed casualties grew day by day, name after name. Pages of area newspapers were filled with funeral service notifications and cards of thanks. A week after the tragedy a community-wide memorial was held, with local businesses closing for the day.
In the end, total casualties numbered 77, including a baby born dead an hour after his mother, Anita Sidener, leaped from a second-floor window and a heroic nurse who died in a Granite City hospital the night after the fire. All of the 11 babies in the nursery perished, including new-born twins and the nurse assigned to their care. Many of the victims were new mothers. Others included a six-week-old baby who had been readmitted and his father, who was staying in the room with him that night. Another was a five-month-old baby who had been admitted with pneumonia.
Older children included a 12-year-old girl hospitalised with a broken leg, who did not escape the fire. An 11-year-old boy was recovering from rheumatic fever. His father dropped him from a window in an attempt to save him and then jumped himself. The child died a few days later in another hospital.
One happy note involved a young mother in the delivery room at the time the fire was discovered. June Aderman was able to safely climb down a ladder from a second floor window and was escorted to her nearby home by her husband and hospital staff, where she later gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
Resulting fire safety awareness
The Effingham fire prompted a review of fire safety and building standards at hospitals nationwide, with emphasis on:
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 encouraging 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 smouldering 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.
A sense of community
As is so often seen with tragedies of this magnitude, people automatically pulled together, even while numbed with shock. Area residents raced to assist in rescue efforts. Some brought mattresses from their nearby homes and others helped retrieve mattresses from a hospital storage building, dragging them into place for patients to jump to. A few volunteers ran into the building in the early stages to help remove oxygen tanks, in an attempt to prevent explosions.
Many homes were opened to patients who had escaped the building. Community members prepared sandwiches and coffee for rescuers and fire fighters throughout the night and into the morning hours.
The hospital garage became a staging area for the injured as well as a temporary morgue. People combed the building seeking to identify the remains of missing loved ones who had been patients.
Nuns from other convents and medical personnel from different areas arrived to lend assistance, bringing with them needed supplies and equipment.
A fire truck was loaded onto a freight car in St Louis and sent to Effingham as a backup in the event of other fires.
The Red Cross set up an emergency facility in the local armoury and oversaw the distribution of donated blood and plasma, other medical supplies and food and drink for the rescue workers.