Around 11:30 p.m. on April 4, 1949, Sister Eustacia smelled smoke on the third floor of St. Anthony’s Hospital in Effingham, Ill. She telephoned Sister Anastasia, night superintendent, at the first-floor switchboard. There was no system in place to send an alarm automatically to the local fire department, so a call was made. Trucks, men and equipment arrived within 10 minutes, but by then, flames had engulfed much of the three-story building.
Ten staff members and 116 patients had been inside the building when the inferno ignited; by the time it was extinguished and the casualties counted, 74 of them had died, including bedridden older patients and day-old babies. It remains one of the worst hospital fires in American history.
Eyewitnesses provided harrowing descriptions, as recounted by the National Fire Protection Association, newspapers of the day and historical accounts. [Continues after photos.]
Local residents watched in horror as some people leapt from the top floor and were killed or criticially injured. “We tried to get them to stay,” a man said, “but when one jumped, they all did.”
Fern Riley, a nurse in the hospital nursery, was warned to stay outside, but was heard to cry, “My babies, my babies, I’ve got to stay,” before running back into the building, where she died.
Frank Reis, St. Anthony’s chief engineer, raced from his home to rescue his wife, who was a patient in the hospital. He entered the basement, near the laundry chute, where the fire started. He never made it out. His wife was one of those who leapt from the third floor and reportedly died later from her injuries.
Sister Eustacia, who first noticed the smoke, also lost her life in the catastrophe.
The next day, Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson flew in to inspect the ruins and met with nuns and others in the community to plan for rebuilding the hospital. He also ordered that all hospitals in the state be evaluated and fire safety measures adopted and enforced.
In fact, the St. Anthony’s tragedy led to improvements in fire safety standards for hospitals across the nation, according to a report in the July 1949 issue of Trustee magazine. Stairwells were ordered to be enclosed so flames could not spread vertically and quickly throughout a multistory facility; an independent fire alarm system was mandated to ring in nonpatient areas and light up a visual system at each nurses’ station; regularly scheduled fire drills were called for; and improved sprinkler systems were required.