The 1949 St. Anthony Hospital Fire in Effingham, Illinois
The Night That Changed Everything
The glow in the night sky grew brighter over Effingham, Illinois, 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-story brick building dated from 1876, with several additions constructed later. At about 11:45 p.m. on the night of April 4, 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, fueled 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.
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 organizational 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 newborn twins, and the nurse assigned to their care. Many of the victims were new mothers. Others included a 6-week-old baby who had been readmitted, and his father, who was staying in the room with him that night. Another was a 5-month-old baby who had been admitted with pneumonia.
Older children included a 12-year-old girl hospitalized 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.
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.
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 firefighters 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 armory and oversaw the distribution of donated blood and plasma, other medical supplies, and food and drink for the rescue workers.
No one in the town hasn't lost a friend.— W.R. Crannell, neighbor and eyewitness to the fire
Every person who died in the fire that night had a unique personal history. Here are a few of their stories:
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 which 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.
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.
Floy Mascher, age 35, had been admitted to the hospital for surgery. Her husband, Floyd*, was at home with their 2-year-old 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.
*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.
Life Magazine came to town, documenting "Sorrow In the Heart of the U.S.," a 5-page pictorial in their April 18th issue, that gave a compelling, if abbreviated, account of the tragedy.
Even in the pre-Internet world of 1949, the hospital fire was widely publicized. The daughter of Frank Ries later reported that his family members in Germany had already heard about the tragedy before they were called and informed of Frank's death.
Fundraising efforts were undertaken immediately for the purpose of rebuilding the community hospital. Contributions came from every state, as well as from several other countries.
While plans were completed for construction of the new facility, a 20-bed temporary emergency hospital was set up in June 1949 in an existing building on the property.
A Shining Memorial
Groundbreaking for the massive rebuilding project took place on August 15, 1951, and the cornerstone was laid on September 15, 1952.
Finally, two and a half years later, the modern new hospital opened with a name change, St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital, on February 2, 1954, and was officially dedicated on May 16th of that year. Until that time, babies born after the fire had been delivered in makeshift maternity wards in doctors' offices and clinics, or at home. The local health department had established a program to help facilitate home births. Patients at the temporary hospital were transferred into the new facility prior to the official opening day.
The splendid six-story building boasted an initial capacity of 127 patients with room for expansion, at an estimated cost of $4,500,000. This amount represented over $560,000 in private contributions and insurance funds of $1,500,000, added to contributions from the Sisters of St. Francis and the county, as well as state and federal grant money.
The largest number of deaths in a United States hospital fire had occurred 20 years earlier, at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, on May 15, 1929. In that instance, a supply of flammable nitrocellulose x-ray film had caught fire in the basement, spreading toxic fumes throughout the facility, followed by explosions. Most of the 123 victims died from inhalation of the gases that were emitted, rather than by fire and smoke as was the case with St. Anthony's.
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 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 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.
Additional Online Resources
1. Polanski, Stan. "Local Fire Heroine Remembered." Effingham Daily News, 24 April 2016.
2. “LISTEN: Paul Davis Narrates Letter by Zona B. Davis on 1949 St. Anthony's Hospital Fire.”Effingham Radio, 04 April 2017.
Special thanks to the Effingham County Courthouse Museum, 100 E Jefferson Ave, Effingham, IL 62401.