Historic Fire Anniversary Sharpens Genesis Focus On Safety Initiatives
By Craig Cooper
George Shirk was driving for Royal Taxi on the cold, early morning of Jan. 7, 1950 when he got an unusual request on the taxi’s radio.
He was told he needed to get to Engine 4 near Lindsay Park in the East Village as soon as possible to transport fire fighters to a major fire.
Now 91 years old, Shirk has a vivid memory of the night of the inferno at St. Elizabeth’s, a mental health facility on the campus of what was then Mercy Hospital in Davenport and is now Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park.
“Every time I drive by there now I think about that night,’’ Shirk said. “It was terrible. The fire fighters did their best but there were flames and smoke coming out of every window. They were overwhelmed.’’
Forty-one women, 40 of them psychiatric patients, died in the fire. The 41st victim was heroic staff nurse Anna Neal, who worked to help others escape, according to news accounts, before succumbing herself. The fire was called “the greatest tragedy in Davenport history,’’ was one of the worst fires in Iowa history and the third deadliest hospital fire in U.S. history.
Everything that could have gone wrong on that night went horribly wrong.
Residents were trapped in the rapidly-spreading inferno behind barred windows. Exits were inaccessible. Structural flaws and the residents’ own physical and mental infirmities made escape nearly impossible. There was no sprinkler system. There was one exterior fire escape but the route out of the building was blocked by locked doors.
“It was plain hell,’’ Lieutenant Al Koranda, who was directing the first fire company of the Davenport Fire Department that night, told The Democrat newspaper in the aftermath. “Some of those on the third floor didn’t have a chance.’’
Firefighters courageously were able to save an additional 25 residents in a short period of time by breaking through the barred windows and through walls.
“You couldn’t see anyone inside because there was so much smoke and flames,’’ Shirk added recently.
Eye witnesses said you could hear the residents’ screams as they tried to escape.
For so many reasons discovered in the aftermath, the St. Elizabeth’s fire was a disaster. The fire was a disaster in terms of loss of life and a disaster in planning and preparation for such an event. Cited in investigations of the St. Elizabeth’s fire were:
• The exits were inaccessible
• There was no sprinkler system, although such systems were available
• There was heavy use of combustible materials throughout the construction of the 60-year-old building
• There was no evacuation plan in place
• There may have been a delay in the first report of the fire to the fire department
Historic Fire Sharpens Focus On Safety Initiatives
The St. Elizabeth’s fire is a tragic milestone in the history of Genesis Health System and its predecessors. By never forgetting the event, Genesis Health System is continuing to develop safety initiatives and plans to prevent any harm to patients and employees.
“Every organization can learn from its best moments and from its absolute worst moments,’’ said Doug Cropper, President and CEO, Genesis Health System. “Although this fire took place 65 years ago, there are still lessons in safety and preparation and construction that apply today.
“We don’t want to forget how this happened or forget the patients, employees and families impacted forever. The best way we can recognize this tragic event in our history is to do something both tangible and symbolic in honor of the 41 who lost their lives.’’
To memorialize the St. Elizabeth’s fire, Genesis employees are sharpening their focus on 41 safety essentials to further protect patients and employees.
In addition to consistently following the 41 safety essentials, Genesis Health System will also remember the fire and honor the lives of those who perished with a solemn 12-hour vigil starting at 2:06 a.m. on Jan. 7.
The unclaimed bodies of patients who died in the fire are buried at Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park, Davenport. The cemetery plot is enclosed by an iron fence enclosure and a memorial plaque recognizes the fire victims.
At 2 p.m. on Jan. 7, there will be a brief remembrance ceremony open to the public. Genesis President and CEO Doug Cropper will speak and the Riverbend Bronze Handbell Ensemble will perform.
“Genesis Health System has made a system-wide commitment to follow best safety practices and to be a national leader for patient and employee safety and we’re making progress toward those goals. Genesis Medical Center, Davenport and Genesis Medical Center, Silvis have been recognized with A grades for patient safety,’’ Cropper added. “We’re the only hospitals in the Quad Cities to earn the top grades.
“But we can do better. These 41 St. Elizabeth’s Safety Initiatives will take us closer to our goals.’’
Among the 41 safety essentials for Genesis employees are the practice of RACE for fire safety (Rescue, Alarm, Contain, Extinguish/Evacuate); PASS for fire extinguisher safety (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep); knowing hospital emergency codes; knowing the ALICE plan (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate); celebrating safety stories; and, to “Stop The Line’’ whenever there is a safety concern.