Original AP News Story of St. Elizabeth's Fire - Genesis Health System

Published on January 05, 2015

Jan. 7, 1950 Associated Press Account of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Fire.

Flames Destroy Mental Ward; All of Dead Were Women

Davenport (AP) -- Thirty-one women were known to have died and six others were presumed dead in a fire which swept a mental hospital here early today.

Ten hours after the blaze started, Coroner C. H. WILDMAN said the bodies of 31 women had been recovered and six other patients were missing and almost certain to be dead in the ruins.

The sister superior of the hospital said 31 other patients had been treated for burns or injuries, accounting for the 65 women and three men known to have been in the building.

The path to safety for many of the patients was blocked by barred windows.
Except for a nurse's aide, all the dead and missing were patients.

They were asleep in the three-story St. Elizabeth's ward building of Mercy hospital when the flames broke out at 2 a.m.

The fire was brought under control in a four-hour battle.

The flames spread rapidly through the 60-year-old brick structure, one of four buildings comprising this Eastern Iowa city's largest hospital.

Screams Sound Alarm
Screams of the trapped women spread the alarm.

Aid was sent at once from the nearby five-story main Mercy hospital building and 14 fire companies came immediately.

As the flames swept upward the scene became one of horror.

The women patients, many of them infirm of both body and mind, beat against the barred windows and screamed their terror. Some fainted away in the smoke and flame.

A white-robed nun stood outside the blazing building, weeping bitterly. Her arms held blankets which firemen took to cover bodies as they were removed.

Catholic chaplains moved shadow-like about their solemn duties as the flames outlined their figures.

Some Fight To Return
Some of the rescued fought to return to the burning ward. In the tragic illogic of catastrophe they wanted to go back for little things -- a picture, their shoes, a coat.

There were heroic rescues. Firemen hacked away window bars while flames licked at their ladder. A policeman called for hose lines to drench him with water. Then he disappeared through a window into the smoke and flame. He returned with a woman in his arms.

The three men patients escaped, two by leaping from an unbarred window. The survivors were being treated in the main Mercy hospital building.

Where Fire Started
Fire Chief LESTER SCHICK said the fire apparently started in a second-floor room on the east side of the building.

Sister MARY ANNUNZIATA, the hospital superior, told a reporter it was possible someone had been smoking a cigaret and dropped it on some inflammable material.

Hours after the fire was extinguished firemen worked at carrying out melted iron beds, still-flaming mattresses and other smouldering debris.
Bodies were removed in white rubber-sheeted bags.

The hospital is administered by the Sisters of Mercy, a Catholic order. It was established in 1868 by persons of all creeds.

Temporary Morgue
A temporary morgue was set up in a room at Mercy hospital. A force of nurses set about the task of establishing identifications. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.

Flames from the burning building reddened the sky over this Mississippi river city. Police officers held back the crowds which pressed against their lines.
Some of the survivors were stretcher cases.

Two of the women rescued had been in the burning building about four hours. Suffering severe burns, they were said to be in critical condition. One of them was identified as MISS MARY RUTH FINNERTY of Ottumwa.

In all, firemen said that 25 or 30 persons were removed from the blazing ward. From the south section of the structure firemen lowered the forms of six patients down aerial ladders -- then it was learned only two of them were alive.

Survivor's Story
MISS JOSEPHINE O'TOOLE of Davenport, a nurse's aide, said she was awakened by screams of patients while asleep in her room on the third floor.

"I threw open a window, but saw nothing unusual and decided to go back to bed," MISS O'TOOLE said.

"Then I heard someone shout 'Fire' and I opened my door and looked out into the hall."

"I smelled smoke and heard more screams on floors below me. I didn't know how long the fire had been burning and I was afraid I would be trapped."

"Windows are barred and, anyway, I didn't relish the prospect of jumping from the third floor."

"So I grabbed my coat, put it over my nightgown, and ran down the stairs to the basement. There I was joined by MRS. NEIGHBORS, one of the patients, and we went out through the basement."

"I really don't know what time it was, but it must have been a little before 2 o'clock."

"Flames started to shoot up from the building a short time later."

"I guess I was one of the first out of the building. If I hadn't gone when I did, I might have been trapped like many others."

MISS O'TOOLE lives with a sister, MRS. MARTIN LINEHAN of Davenport, when not on duty.

$200,000 Loss
Hospital officials estimated the loss at $200,000.

A force of 107 firemen fought the blaze on the hospital grounds located two miles from the business district. The total included a group of volunteers incorporated as the "Second Alarmers," and volunteers from suburban Green Acres and Bettendorf.

The mercury stood at 19 degrees.

When all officers in the city were rushed to the scene of the disaster, Merchant Policeman BILL STEGEN, 57, was among those who responded. He said he gained an "indelible impression of pure horror."

This was STEGEN'S story:
"I arrived about five minutes after the second alarm. The east side was aflame, so I stepped around to the west and assisted the firemen with my flashlight while they attempted to cut through bars on a window."

Used an Axe
"First, we tried some of the bars with a wire clipper, but this was in vain, so we used an axe. One woman was sitting at the window with the flames close by."

"A fireman got her out and then had to struggle with her because she wanted to return and get her clothes."

"In one instance a little Irish woman was calling for help. The firemen finally got her out and had quite a time getting her down the ladder."

"Other women were screaming."

"I saw one man that got out who had a narrow escape. He had sunk to the floor, overcome by smoke, but the firemen got to him in time."

"I stood alongside a white-robed sister whose arms were loaded with blankets. She was crying. Just then the flames broke out through the roof on the northeast corner."

"I asked her: 'Anybody on the upper floor?"

"She said it was filled to capacity."

"I saw Patrolman FEE of the Davenport police call for water. He was on an extension ladder. They poured water on him and he dove in the window and emerged carrying a woman in his arms. He had found her in bed."

"One of our city firemen also went in and pulled a woman out of the same room. This was while the flames were within five or six feet of the window of the south section."

"I have never seen anything like this. It was pitiful. Women were dashing at the iron bars, crying for help and I saw several faint away and disappear in the smoke and flame."

"The feeling of helplessness was terrible."

Balked At Rescue

MRS. GLADYS OESTENDORF, a nurse's aide, said she started to take one woman from the blazing building, but the woman balked, saying she wanted to go back an get her shoes. She said she finally managed to get the patient to forget about the shoes and flee the flames.

The entire staff of nurses aides, orderlies and sisters was called for emergency duty. All available doctors and nurses in the city were called to the scene.

Hospital officials said part of the section used for the mental patients had recently been remodeled particularly to care for these patients.

The main hospital is listed as having 276 beds.

Davenport (AP) -- The identified dead in the Mercy hospital fire:
MRS. ANNA NEAL, 52, nurse's aide.
MRS. MINNIE MADDEN, 80, Ottawa, Ill.
MRS. MARY RYAN, 85, Avon, Ill.
Listed as missing and presumed dead were:
MRS. MINA SCHNEIDER, 53, Davenport.
AMANDA STILLWELL, 37, Davenport.
ALVINA KRUSE, 77, Davenport.
MRS. LILLIAN KEATING, 39, Davenport.
MRS. LYDIA TURNER, 90, Davenport.
Other bodies were tentatively identified as those of:
MRS. MARILYN BEALS of Rock Island. (Identified by a diamond ring.)
MARIE RAUEMBUEHLER of near Burlington. (Identified by her personal physician.)

SOURCE: The Cedar Rapids Gazette Iowa, Jan. 7, 1950

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