There was an orderly present at St. Anthony Hospital on the night of April 4, 1949, and his name was Bernard John ("Ben") Biedenhorn. Prior to the 1960s, most Catholic hospitals kept at least one full-time orderly on staff at all times.

Ben was asleep in his room on the third floor attic around the time the fire was discovered, but the charge nurse roused him and told him to go downstairs to locate the source of the bad smell she detected. He took the elevator instead of the stairs, and that decision was a lifesaver. From all accounts, everyone else left on the third floor at that point perished, including the supervisor who dispatched him to investigate.

Mr. Biedenhorn went on to rescue others by guiding them out of the first floor of the burning building. In the process, he sustained burns, but he continued to try until other rescuers realized the futility of additional trips inside and forced him to stop.

Ben was born in Danville in 1899. His parents were German immigrants, William and Elizabeth Brink Biedenhorn. By 1910, his mother was deceased, and he lived with father and grandmother at 302 High Street in Effingham. At the time of the World War I draft, he was a laborer at Fuerborn Manufacturing Company.

After the fire, Ben worked at the interim Emergency Center. When the new hospital opened, Ben continued at St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital as an orderly. Later on, he was a security guard. For part of each day, Ben stationed himself in a green chair in a niche near the lobby, often reciting the rosary as he watched people coming and going.

As Ben aged, he had few blood relatives left, and the hospital staff was his adopted family. The Hospital Sisters of St. Francis (HSSF) were very fond of him, labeling him "Gentle Ben." Ben lived alone in a little house on 411 St. Anthony. Although his home was just a few blocks away, he was dead on arrival at St. Anthony's in late December, 1972. Ben is buried in St. Anthony's Parish Cemetery.

Sister Mary Edmunda Hiersig was also present on the third floor attic during the evening of April 4. She was a practical nurse, according to 1949 standards, as PN licensure was not required in Illinois until 1954. According to HSSF historian Sister Francis Cook, Sister Edmunda smelled smoke on the first floor around 11:30 p.m. as she went off duty, and she reported it to Sister Anastasia Groesch, the registered nurse who was running the switchboard.

Sister Edmunda was an experienced PN, as she had been a member of HSSF for 38 years. She was born Anna Hiersig in Reimen, Silesia, Germany, in 1883. Her parents were Hinrich and Anna Schneider Hiersig. Anna was an immigrant who came to the United States in 1910, the same year she joined the Order.

Her early assignments were in Wisconsin, and she became a naturalized citizen there in 1921. After 1929, she was stationed in Illinois facilities. Sister Edmunda worked at St. John's Sanitarium in Springfield until 1933, where she cared for people with active tuberculosis.

After the fire, she was transferred to St. Monica's Hall in Springfield, where she worked until 1958. St. Monica's was a private Catholic facility for pregnant unmarried women waiting to have their babies, who were generally placed for adoption.

Sister Edmunda lived to be 84. She died in 1967, and is buried at the Crucifixion Hill Cemetery, which is located in Clear Lake Township in Sangamon County, on the north end of the HSSF convent grounds.

Maria ("Marie") Moerchen Ries lived through the fire, but she wasn't able to walk away. Marie was a private duty practical nurse. In the late 1940s, hospitals employed general duty nurses, while private duty nurses were hired by the patient or the patient's family. Especially at night, the presence of a private duty nurse was important for a seriously ill patient's welfare.

When the fire was detected, Marie was on the second floor, and she came close to being trapped by the rapidly encroaching flames. The only means to get away was to go out the window. She hit the ground hard, sustaining multiple injuries. Her husband, hospital engineer Frank Ries, simultaneously fought the fire and looked for his wife. He was unsuccessful on both counts, and his body was later located in the basement.

Marie could not testify at the inquest into the manner of the fire deaths because she was immobilized in the hospital. She had a fractured skull with an altered level of consciousness. Because she barely made it out of the building, Marie also had multiple burns. She could not express herself at first because of the head injury, so her three compressed spinal fractures were not detected initially. Her recovery was slow and painful. Nevertheless, when the new hospital opened in 1954, Marie went to work there. Marie lived to be 69. She died in 1971, and is buried with Frank in St. Anthony's Parish Cemetery.

Many people on the first level survived because they could walk down steps or climb out low windows. Registered nurse Frances Dotson Pitchford was one of them. Frances was originally from Missouri. She married Alonzo Pitchford there in 1931, and she attained her RN licensure in Illinois in 1934.

By 1940, Frances and Alonzo were residing close to the hospital, and Frances was employed at St. Anthony as a general duty nurse. On the night of the fire, she was working the 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift on the first floor. The unit was a mix of adult medical and surgical patients. The first level was actually 1 1/2 stories above the ground level, because the basement was half above ground.

Frances provided extensive testimony to the fire marshal, indicating that she became aware of the fire between 11:45 and 11:50 p.m. One of her patients smelled something burning, and shortly thereafter she saw thin streams of smoke coming out of a laundry chute. Mr. Ries was on the scene by that time. He opened the chute door, intending to use a fire extinguisher, but the sudden influx of oxygen caused flames to shoot out and hit the ceiling. Frances did not mention an audible fire alarm system. Frances evacuated patients from several first floor rooms and then jumped with the patient from Room 118. Next she helped move mattresses under windows, so others could make the leap.

After the fire, Frances signed up to help with the Maternity Home Delivery Service offered by the Effingham County Health Department. She was one of two dedicated nurses who helped deliver babies at home for the entire time of need, which ended with the opening of the new St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital in 1954. Then, like Ben Biedenhorn and Marie Ries, she joined the St. Anthony's staff. Frances lived to be 97. She passed away in Lawrenceville in 2005, and she is buried with Alonzo in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Sources: US Federal Census for 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940; Ben Biedenhorn's World War I draft registration, 9/12/1918; Ben Biedenhorn obituary, Effingham Daily News, 12/14/1972 ; Sister Miriam Bruening, "A Tribute to Ben Biedenhorn-Friend," HospiTalk, 1/12/1973, p. 3; Apostolic Service Record of Sister Eustacia Hiersig, per Brian Blasco, HSSF archives, 7/24/2013; Anna Hiersig naturalization card, 5/21/1921; Sister Francis Cook, His Love Heals (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977), p. 163; "Mrs. Frank T. Ries in Belleville Hospital," undated clipping in the Effingham County Genealogical and Historical Society's St. Anthony Hospital Effingham Illinois 1949, Vol II, p. 87; SAMH staff group photograph, circa late 1960s, Effingham County Museum collections; "Maria Morechen Ries" and "Sister Edmunda Hiersig" @ www.findagrave.com; Frances Dotson's Bonna Terre High School photograph, www.ancestry.com; Linda Ruholl, Celebrating Positive Public Policy: 70-Year History of the Effingham County Health Department, (Effingham, 2017), p. 21; Fire Marshal's report, April 14, 1949; Frances Pitchford obituary, Sumner Press, 11/24/ 2005.

Recommended for you