Sarah Hayden’s recent North Scott Press column noting that the late Lester Schick, a former Davenport fire chief, was her grandfather plus her mention of the 1950 St. Elizabeth’s fire set me to thinking about and researching Davenport’s and Iowa’s deadliest fire. (Shown in the photo above from pinterest.com.)
The blaze took place on Jan. 7, 1950, in the St. Elizabeth Women’s Psychiatric Building of the former Mercy Hospital, now the site of Genesis Medical Center’s west campus. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that among healthcare facilities, it’s the third deadliest fire in U.S. history. Forty-one people died. Of those killed, 40 were mostly elderly mental patients, and one was an attendant.
The worst healthcare facility fire in history was at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio on May 15, 1929. It killed 125 people. Second worst was a fire at St. Anthony Hospital in Effingham, Ill., on April 4, 1949. Counting patients and staff, 74 people died.
A January 1950 NFPA report, volume 43, no. 3 of The Quarterly, detailed what happened that deadly January night in the St. Elizabeth building. The report goes into great detail describing the brick, wood joist building, which was a separate structure but administered as part of Mercy Hospital. It was a two-story building with much of the basement above ground. So, with its attic it appeared to be a four-story building.
The NFPA says the fire was discovered at an undetermined time prior to 2:06 a.m.
“There was one outside fire escape but access to it was blocked by barred windows,” said the report. It said a patient undergoing periodic treatment ignited the curtains in her room on the first floor in protest over being locked in the room, which was not normal treatment for that patient.
The fire quickly spread to the second floor and attic but also to the hallway when the patient broke the wired glass transom over her door and escaped through it and out the front entrance.
There were two attendants in the building at the time of the fire. One was sleeping, and one was awake. The attendant who was awake died in the fire. The other one escaped from the second floor via a center stairway.
The NFPA report said there were a couple of reasons for the large number of deaths. They were:
• The locked doors and the mental condition of patients who wanted to stay in their rooms or, once out of the building, wanted to return.
• The lack of a prearranged procedure for evacuation of the building in case of emergency.
It was possible to rescue only 25 of the 61 occupants. Two of those rescued died later. The report also noted that “only a very short space of time was available to the firemen to get patients out owing to the exceedingly rapid spread of fire through the old building.”
It said how much delay there may have been in discovering the fire and reporting it to the fire department may never be known. But it says the fact that the fire had gone to the upper floors when the department arrived is evidence there must have been a considerable delay in discovering the fire or in reporting it. “The alarm was telephoned to the fire department from the central switchboard in the main office in another building.”
When firefighters arrived, the main and second floor of the building were heavily involved, and rescue efforts were greatly handicapped by the barred windows. “Chopping the bars out of wood window frames necessarily took time and delayed rescue.”
The fire department was responsible for saving the lives of 19 of the 23 survivors, the NFPA concluded, “and did everything that was humanly possible, but in a building such as this, with the fire so far advanced upon their arrival, no fire department could be expected to prevent heavy loss of life.”
The report said a properly installed and maintained sprinkler system would have prevented the tragedy, and “over a period of about 25 years, fire department officials had repeatedly suggested automatic sprinklers, according to the chief.”
The report noted that there wasn’t an effective procedure for prompt discovery of the fire and calling the fire department. It also said locked doors and barred windows are necessary in certain types of mental institutions, but electric devices can be installed to release all locks simultaneously by the operation of the switch at a central point. In addition, “windows can be barred from the inside but with outside fastenings that can be quickly released by firemen on ladders.”
I’m sure there were many heroes at the fire that night, but one prominently recognized was a Davenport police patrolman named Richard Fee, 36. Though he did not want to talk about the fire in later years, Fee, who died Jan. 26, 2003, at the age of 89, wrote about his St. Elizabeth’s fire experience in a wire service article published soon after the fire.
“I was one of the first to reach the hospital when we got the alarm,” Fee wrote.
“Flames were shooting out of the windows on the second and third floors, and I could see more fire on the roof of the building. As the firemen put a ladder up, I grabbed an ax and climbed to the top of one of them. I chopped at the anchor bolts holding the bars across one of the windows. I thought those bars never would give way.
“Finally the bars dropped to the ground, and I smashed the pane with the helve of the ax. I saw a sight I guess I never will forget. Silhouetted against the flames were a group of patients. They weren’t screaming and didn’t seem excited much. They just looked bewildered. Sort of like animals who had something new happening to them and didn’t know just what to do.
“The flames were all around them by then. But thank God, they were docile and followed my orders willingly. I climbed in and took several by the hand and led them to the window. Firemen and other officers helped them down the ladder while I went as far as possible into the building to get more.”
Fee figured he had found about half a dozen patients and gotten them out the window.
“I didn’t have time to keep count. Those flames were hot. I could feel them searing my uniform, and my skin as I ducked among them. I was a little afraid the floors might give way but didn’t have much chance to think about it.
“Most of the patients I saw were older people. We managed to throw blankets around some of them, but for most the weather was so cold that they were going from one hell to another as they got out of the building.”
Fee wrote that when they got outside, the patients just stood round and looked at each other, “sort of unbelieving — as though they just couldn’t understand that anything like this could happen to them. There was very little screaming in the part of the building where I was, but I could hear terrible, terrible yells from other parts of the building.
“This was the worst thing I’ve even seen in the time I’ve been with the force. I hope I never see anything like it again.”
Thanks to improved building and fire codes, there are fewer chances of anyone seeing anything like that again.
Copyright 2015 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. Submitted as a column to North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.