Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

March 15, 2013

Historian outlines wide impact of hospital fire

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — After 64 years, people are still talking about the tragic events of April 4, 1949.

That was the day of the St. Anthony Hospital fire that killed 77 people and affected the lives of many more. Thursday, nurse, teacher and local historian Linda Ruholl talked about how the fire could be analyzed in terms of advanced historical research.

With several fire survivors and witnesses in the audience, Ruholl gave the last in a series of local history presentations sponsored by the Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Association and Effingham County Genealogical and Historical Society.

The series is expected to resume in November.

Ruholl outlined the method in which she learned more about the tragedy.

"When you do historical research, you read, read, read and read," she said.

Among the publications she drew from were contemporary newspapers and magazines, firefighting trade publications and the American Journal of Nursing. She also credited the two compilations of newspaper articles about the fire and its aftermath collected by local historians Audrey Garbe and Eleanor Bounds.

All that reading, she said, led to one goal.

"Part of the purpose of historical research is to establish validity," she said.

Ruholl also talked about the differences in culture between 1949 and 2013, though some observers might think little has changed.

"There were deep divisions in the Effingham community in 1949," she said. "Older and newer residents didnÕt get along, for one thing."

Other conflicts, she said, were between English and German speakers, Protestants and Catholics, Republicans and Democrats, and, on the school level, town kids and country kids.

After several years during World War II when women joined the workforce in droves, women were back at home raising kids while many of their husbands were attending college on the GI Bill. Ruholl said the economy was booming, even though many were distracted by the specter of a worldwide Communist conspiracy.

On top of that, she said, medicine was nowhere near as effective as it is today.

"Infection was still a common cause of death," she said.

Ruholl said the story of St. Anthony Hospital really begins in Europe as a result of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. During the course of his rumble through central Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte seized all the monasteries in modern-day Germany. As a result, priests were ministering on their own in the countryside. Some of those priests were assisted by nuns, and, some of those nuns founded the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in 1844.

Some of those nuns were driven out of Europe by the Franco-Prussian War of 1970. Three of them made it to Effingham by 1876, just in time to work at the then-new St. Anthony Hospital on St. Anthony Avenue in the northwestern part of young Effingham.

After a number of remodelings and addition, the hospital loomed large in the community by 1949, covering more than 6,000 square feet with a capacity of 100 beds.

On the night of the fire, there were anywhere from 128 to 132 people at the hospital, including 107 patients (one of whom died shortly before the fire), four nuns, eight nurses, six other employees, a chaplain, four sitters and two family members with new admissions.

Ruholl talked about some of the heroes of that evening, including Sisters Eustachia Glatki and Bernina Hiericher. Then there was chief engineer Frank Ries, who was last seen descending into the basement and whose body was later found surrounded by fire extinguishers.

One of the most poignant stories, Ruholl said, was that of Fern Riley, the young practical nurse in charge of the nursery. Ruholl said Riley could have escaped, but refused to leave "her babies" and perished along with them.

Ruholl also talked about the national attention that the fire drew from magazines such as Life, Colliers and Time.

Not only, she said, did the Effingham community band together to build a new hospital just north of where the old one had been, but the fire ended up having a national impact on how large buildings were constructed.

The fire also sparked establishment of such institutions as the Illinois Fire College and the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which established strict workplace procedures regarding fires.

Ruholl added that the fire made local and regional reputations for several local media personalities, including radio announcer Zona B. Davis and Effingham Daily News founder Joe McNaughton.