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Effingham Fire Destroys Hospital, Kills 75.

July 18, 2013
From LIFE magazine, April 18, 1949.

From LIFE magazine, April 18, 1949.

One of the worst hospital fires in US history took place in Effingham, IL on April 5, 1949. The city is the county seat of Effingham County where many of the Adermans and Heidens settled and had the only hospital in the county. In fact, Mrs. June Aderman was in the hospital when it caught fire and was fortunate to escape. Her story is referred to briefly in the news article below.

The United Press, a precursor to today’s UPI newswire, first reported the news of the fire this way:

57 DIE IN FIRE; EFFINGHAM HOSPITAL DESTROYED

BY: Hayden Bradford, UP Staff Correspondent Effingham, HI [sic]., April 5–A fire flashed through the 80 year-old St. Anthony’s hospital early today, trapping scores of helpless patients, and authorities feared that at least 57 persons perished. [Note: later, the Fire Marshall's report raised the number to 74 plus one who died at another hospital later.]

Ten newborn babies died in the disaster, one of the worst hospital fires in the nation’s history. Another baby was born dead after its mother was injured critically in jumping out of a window. Shortly before 1 p.m., CST 34 bodies had been counted, 31 of them in the temporary morgue and three at other points. Of these, 26 were identified. The fire started shortly before midnight in the basement of the three-story building, which supposedly was fire-proof and had its own fire extinguishing system. The cause of the fire was not known. The flames shot up a laundry chute and swept through all floors.

Patients died in attempts to crawl through thick smoke and flames that filled the corridors. Others died in their beds, some with their limbs in casts or suspension slings. Fireman Charles Jaycee said about 12 patients jumped from windows, killing at least one and injuring several. Others were helped from first floor windows.

At least 15 persons were injured in escaping from the flames, police said.

Mrs. Wenton Sidney, 22, who was in a delivery room annex waiting to have a baby, jumped screaming from a second floor window, she suffered a broken back and right arm. Her baby was born dead an hour later. The bodies of nine other babies were recovered from the ruins and taken to an improvised morgue in a hall near the hospital.

Authorities said that another newborn child of Mrs. C.J. Springer died in the flames. Mrs. Springer escaped by jumping from a window. Much of the interior of the building collapsed. Floors and ceilings were piled on the bodies and authorities said the exact death toll might never be known, the hospital records were destroyed. Hours after the flames were put out firemen were digging through the debris and carrying bodies to an improvised morgue. The Rev. John J. Goff, pastor of St. Anthony’s church connected with the hospital, said the best estimate of the number of persons in the building at the time the fire started was 134.

These included, he said, 108 patients, three non-patients, a Miss Mary Kessler, and 22 nuns. Rescuers’ check lists showed that 57 patients and 20 nuns escaped. Miss Kessler died in the flames. The dead included Miss Fern Riley, 21, a nurse who refused to leave the babies and died a heroine apparently trying to save them, firemen said. Ben Bidenhorn was an ambulance attendant who helped victims from first floor windows. He received burns on his face and hands. He said he was asleep on the top floor when he was awakened by one of the sisters. “I saw smoke and opened the laundry chute, but I saw no flames and I hollered, ‘It’s downstairs.’ I ran to the elevator and when I got there I found the whole place was on fire, both the first and second floors.”

Frank Reis was the hospital engineer who lived next door. He dashed into the flaming building in an attempt to save his wife, a patient on the second floor. [Note: LIFE magazine of April 18, 1949 reported that Mrs. Reis jumped out of a window and, while badly injured, she did survive.] Some of the patients escaped by jumping from windows. One good story is about Mrs. Arnold Aderman who was having labor pains when the fire started. She climbed down a ladder from her second story room and was taken home and gave birth to a son. She and the baby were reported in good condition. [Mrs. Aderman's story will be shared tomorrow.]

The Illinois State Fire Marshall investigated the blaze and offered a report of the scenario, witness statements, and possible causes for the fire and high death rate. Among his statements, he wrote:

Reconstruction of events in the early stages of the fire prior to and after arrival of the fire department force the conclusion that there was no effective organized rescue work and that those who escaped did so without assistance or with the assistance of nurses, nuns, and a few members of the Volunteer Fire Department. There is no evidence that the fire escapes were used to any extent or that the few ladders brought by the fire department were successfully used, excepting where some few people were taken from the roof of the one-story surgery section of the building by use of a fireman’s ladder.

The Effingham Volunteer Fire Department had 23 men respond to the alarm of fire, but most of these came sometime after the apparatus arrived on the scene. In view of this and of the attempted rescue work, the pumpers were not promptly put into action, but all three eventually delivered water on the fire.

In addition, and in response to a call for help over the Illinois State Police Radio Station at Effingham, paid and volunteer firemen came from the following named towns with their pumpers: Neoga, Teutopolis, Olney, Altamont, St. Elmo, Flora, Salem, Centralis, Sigel, Newton, and Matton. Some of these pumpers were put into service so that eventually eight pumpers were delivering water on the fire. However, the building was practically consumed by that time.

F. Delaine Donaldson, author of Effingham County: Transforming the Illinois Prairie (2010) wrote:

To understand the depth of emotion, one has to travel backward in time to the night of April 4, 1949, a night in which there was an overwhelming sense of surrealism. The sky over the city of Effingham was a strange pink with ornage color as a result of the fire that burned at the seventy-four-year-old building known as St. Anthony’s Hospital. Sirens screamed during the night as fire departments from throughout the area rushed into the town to the scene of great disaster.

The destruction did not take long–only about ten minutes, in fact–as fire quickly spread through the hallways of the building that held 120 beds. Firemen from Effingham and surrounding communities fought the blaze for about three hours before they brought it under control; then came the task of searching for the dead.

That tragic evening there were 128 patients, staff and visitors in the building; 77 of them died in the fire [Note: There may have been two deaths reported later as a result of the fire]. Temporary housing for rescued patients was quickly established, as was a morgue. There was also a headquarters for gathering information about the survivors and the deceased. Such headquarters, of course, was needed due to the confusion of the evening and the fact that many survivors were taken to other hospitals miles distant from Effingham County.

The emotion of the evening left its mark on the psyche of the area. The piteous screams of those who were burning or leaping from windows left a mark on the minds of people nearby, memories that could not be forgotten.

. . . The gruesome removal of bodies from the burned out building continued in the days following the fire. But a spirit of renewal and hope swept throughout the county as people began to talk about the need to rebuild the hospital . . . [and eventually enough money was raised to do just that.]

From → Aderman/Bates

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