Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

May 18, 2014

Hospital marks milestone, remembers tragic fire

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — The recen ceremony commemorating 60th anniversary of the opening of St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital was more about remembering the tragic fire at the old St. Anthony Hospital five years earlier. The April 4, 1949, fire that killed 74 people led to an increased emphasis on fire safety measures at new hospitals, including St. Anthony’s Memorial.

The event included a prayer service, memorial walk, balloon release and historical presentation.

Two survivors of the deadly fire attended the ceremony. Anita Seidner was in labor with her baby, while Lucille Hartke’s baby had been born three days before the fire. While both mothers escaped the inferno by jumping from second floor windows, neither baby survived.

Neither would forget the events of that terrible April evening, and Thursday’s event brought back those memories, at least for Seidner.

“It makes me remember 65 years ago,” she said.

Hartke noted that the number of survivors seemed to be dwindling.

“I thought I would see some people I hadn’t seen for awhile, but there aren’t that many of us left,” Hartke said.

Daughters of both women said the impact of the fire lasted for many years in both families.

“She (Hartke) didn’t talk about it for years,” said daughter Karen Hoene, who was the only one of Leonard and Lucille Hartke’s five children to be born in the new hospital. “It took many years before she could.”

Seidner’s daughter, Sandy Beccue, said Thursday’s event made her think about the terror her mother endured.

“I just think about what Mom had to go through,” Beccue said. While young Sandy was only 2 at the time of the fire, she had vivid memories of her mother’s long convalescence at home after release from the St. Louis hospital she had been taken to after the fire.

“I remember when Mom came home from the hospital, I would sit on her bed and people would send her cards with hankies inside,” Beccue said.

Beccue said she planned to make a quilt with some of those hankies from so long ago.

Thursday’s event began with a prayer service conducted by the Revs. Ralph Zetzl and Chris Brey in the hospital’s Healing Garden on the south side of the building.

Brey reminded the gathering that “peace only comes when we surrender to God.” The priest added that the fire narrative features a number of heroes.

“We have stories about the nurse (Fern Riley) and staff who surrendered their lives to save others,” he said.

The prayer service was followed by a walk to the 1937 Effingham fire truck that is the last remaining piece of equipment used to battle the hospital fire. En route, walkers passed a row of luminaries that honored each of those who died in the fire.

From there, the gathering moved to the auditorium on the north side of the auditorium for a historical presentation hosted by local historian Delaine Donaldson.

Donaldson, who was 5 years old at the time of the fire, recalled his elders’ reactions to the inferno.

“There was a sense of terror,” he said. “This hospital meant so much to us as a people.”

But Donaldson said construction of the new hospital showed that Effingham could bounce back from a most devastating tragedy.

“It was a triumph of the human spirit,” he said. “We had terror and tragedy.

“But by 1954, it was triumph.”

Bill Grimes may be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com, or via Twitter @EDNBGrimes.