Seventy-six people died as a result of the St. Anthony Hospital Fire of April 4-5, 1949. Some were active duty employees, while others were off-duty hospital workers sleeping on the third floor. This arrangement was not uncommon in an era where many front-line workers did not have daily access to a car. Many other victims were patients, and a few people were there because they were giving care in a non-official capacity.
Hospital engineer Frank Ries falls into the employee category. He was a dedicated hospital worker who lived right next to the hospital. Ries and his family were personally devoted to the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis (HSSF). He was called to the hospital soon after the fire was detected, when Sister Anastasia Groesch telephoned him at home. She was operating the hospital switchboard, and she was the most senior staff person awake and already on the premises at the time. Sister Anastasia was a HSSF graduate of St. John's Hospital School of Nursing in Springfield. She had been a registered nurse since 1914, with 30 years of nursing practice at seven different HSSF hospitals.
There is variation in the testimony from eyewitnesses about the time Frank Ries arrived, where he went, and what he did. One of the witnesses told the city coroner one thing, and the Illinois Fire Marshal something else. Another eyewitness talked to the fire marshal but not to the coroner. Keep in mind that all of them were physically, mentally and emotionally stressed by the experience.
Even with the discrepancies, there is agreement about some facts. Frank Ries was summoned to the hospital before the fire department was notified. He attempted to smother the fire by spraying a hand held fire extinguisher down into a laundry chute. He moved rapidly from one hospital level to another, from the first floor, to the second floor and to the basement, although the exact order is unclear.
There is also agreement that Frank Ries, in his role as hospital engineer, did not have access to a fire detection system, a sprinkler system or an alarm system to alert the staff and patients of imminent dangers. None of this equipment was new in the United States, and all were proven devices. Reis did have soda and acid fire extinguishers, but his knowledge of appropriate use is uncertain. The stream from a hand-held fire extinguisher has to be aimed close to the base of the fire. Spraying from the top down and at a distance is totally ineffective.
According to a May 1949 article in the professional journal, Fire Engineering, there are two sources of evidence that Ries also used water from the hospital's standpipe system in an attempt to fight the fire. There was a burned-off hose nozzle near his body where it was found in the basement. In addition, a water pressure recorder at the Effingham Water Company indicated an abrupt surge in water use at about 11:35 p.m, approximately 10 minutes before the fire department was called.
After the fire, the Very Reverend Monsignor Jesse L. Gatton, who was Bishop William O'Conner's appointed director of the 15 hospitals in the Springfield diocese, came to Effingham and established a presence in the St. Anthony Parish rectory. While there, he was interviewed about the hospital staff's fire safety preparedness. He told Fire Engineering's investigator Henry Marshalk that the staff was unfamiliar with fire safety issues, stating they "knew nothing about these things, but had to rely on people who did know." Gatton went on the say he believed his group had done all they could, and added "you can't do any more than that, now, can you?" Frank Ries is buried in St. Anthony Cemetery.
Unlike Frank Ries, Emma Niemeyer was not a hospital employee. She was at the hospital in a non-official caregiver capacity. On the night of April 4, she was tending to 5-month-old Clarence Ulhorn. The little boy had pneumonia. This was a time when antibiotic therapy was just beginning to gain acceptance. If he received penicillin, the injection would have been given by a nurse. The drug was thick and required a large bore needle, hence the injection in the baby's largest muscle would have been painful.
The rest of the care for a hospitalized child with pneumonia in 1949 was labor intensive and that is why Emma was there. The infant would have been feverish and fussy, with a flushed face and a fast pulse. His breathing would have been rapid and noisy. No position would have been comfortable, in his crib or out of it, because his body ached due to the elevated temperature. Frequent coughing irritated the lung lining, making it hurt to breathe. Little Clarence needed tender hands-on care, comforting and constant attention.
Emma Niemeyer was practiced in providing this kind of tending. She was a farm wife, having lived in the country on the family farm for many years after her marriage to Alexander ("Allie") Niemeyer. She had born four children between 1912 and 1921: Earl, Grace (Hotze), Bernard and Dale. All these offspring married and started their own families between 1933 and 1945.
Emma had known tragedy. Her husband died suddenly in a farm accident when he was 47. In mid-summer of 1940, Allie was attempting to corral a badly behaved bull to send him to market. The animal charged him, causing fatal internal injuries. After this loss, Emma stayed on the farm for awhile. In the fall of 1941, her Holstein dairy herd placed at the top of the Effingham Dairy Improvement Association's production record. One member of the herd, "Queen", outperformed every cow in the county, yielding 1,911 pounds of milk and 69 pounds of butter fat.
But by the spring of 1949, Emma was a long-time widow with an empty nest. She lived in Teutopolis, at 302 East Walnut Street. That house is intact and still in use today. Emma likely welcomed the income from caring for a sick child. She didn't stay with little Clarence every night, and she wasn't supposed to be there on the night of April 4. But the alternate caregiver asked her to trade days, and Emma accommodated the request. The result was that both Emma and Clarence perished in the fire. Emma rests with Allie in St. Francis Cemetery in Teutopolis, and Clarence is in the children's section there. They were buried on the same day.
Over the years that followed, the Hotze and Niemeyer descendants didn't get to know their Grandma Niemeyer, and for the Hotze family, the loss didn't end there. Elizabeth Hotze Schuette, their 78-year-old aunt, also died as a result of the fire. Lizzie had been an invalid for many years, and was a long-term care patient at St. Anthony Hospital for four years. Unlike most of the other victims, she didn't perish immediately. She died of her burns on April 7, 1949, and is buried in St. Francis Cemetery.
Apostolic Service Record of Sister Anastasia Groesch, HSSF archives via Brian Blasco, 7/24/2013; Sister Agnes McDougall, Duty: The History of St. John's Hospital School of Nursing, (Springfield, IL: HSSF, 1986), p. 7, "Coroner's Inquest Transcript St. Anthony Hospital Fire", as published in the Effingham Daily News, 4/9/1949, p. 1; Report of the Illinois State Fire Marshall St. Anthony Hospital Fire at Effingham, Illinois April 4, 1949 (Springfield: Illinois Dept of Public Safety- Division of Fire Prevention, 1949); Henry E. Marshalk, "Hospital Holocaust Result of Combination of Many Errors," Fire Engineering, Vol 102, No 5 (May 1949), pp. 338-345, 365; How to Use a Portable Fire Extinguisher, (Cleveland, OH: Fire Equipment Manufacturer's Association, 2006); Federal census 1920, 1930, 1940; "Pneumonia" in Charles Phillips Emerson & Jane Elizabeth Taylor's Essentials of Medicine: The Basis of Nursing Care, 16th ed. (Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1950), pp. 154-163; "Farmer is Attacked by Bull; Fatally Injured," Dixon Evening Telegraph, 7/18/1940, p. 13; "Niemeyer Herd Leads Effingham Production," Decatur Herald, 10/22/1941, p. 15; "Frank Ries," Emma Niemeyer," "Clarence Ulhorn," and Elizabeth Schuette"@findagrave.com; "Hospital Fire Victims Rites Are Scheduled," Decatur Herald, 4/8/1949, p. 10; Mary Hotze Witt, Hotze Family History (Privately printed, 2005); Coroner's Death Certificates in Effingham County Museum collection for Frank Ries, Emma Niemeyer and Elizabeth Schuette.