Evolving hospital safety after St. Anthony fire

Speaker Dave Storm begins his presentation on hosptial fire safety after the St. Anthony Hospital fire of 1949 during an Effingham County Museum lecture Thursday. Kaitlin Cordes photo

EFFINGHAM — Through the 1949 tragedy of the St. Anthony Hospital fire, significant nationwide changes were made to fire safety at the medical institutions.

Around two dozen community members gathered at Effingham County Cultural Center and Museum Thursday for a presentation on the evolving fire safety at the Effingham hospital before and after the fire as well as its nationwide and worldwide effects on fire safety regulations and building codes. Former HSHS St. Anthony's Memorial Hospital employee and current Lake Land Community College Trustee Dave Storm spoke on the developments since the fire.

Storm said that a 1944 inspection of the hospital found the facility to be compliant with all fire regulations and cleanliness requirements from the state. The report also lamented that the supervising nuns and housekeepers "took every step to prevent fires."

Storm told the crowd that five years later, the fire that took 77 lives lasted just under two hours, and the state fire marshal's investigation into the disaster started almost before the fire was put out.

"The fire marshals in Chicago, hospital executives and other individuals got together and said 'OK we need to take a look at this.' There were two things that they asked, and they were what caused the fire and how can it be prevented?" Storm said.

Storm said according to the official fire marshal's report, the cause of the fire is undetermined and remains so to this day. Some local folklore suggests the fire was started by a local pyromaniac, a lit cigarette was thrown down a laundry chute, defects in wiring, paint fumes or unsafe storage of flammable liquids and gases.

It is suspected the fire started in the basement portion of the laundry chute, Storm said. The chute extended up into the third floor attic with unprotected openings all the way up to the top floor causing the fire to spread rapidly.

Storm said the fire marshal's report concluded that the combination of conditions, the hospital's layout and the use of dry wood and timber and other flammable materials in the building of the hospital all contributed to the severity of the fire. Vertical openings such open stairwells, laundry chutes and elevator shafts were also factors in the spread of the flames.

Storm said the local fire department was not equipped for the scale of the fire, and there were disparities in equipment from surrounding town's fire department, such as hoses that did not fit on the nearby hydrants.

"The local volunteer fire department was inadequate to the situation as it developed. They had a perfect storm, as you could say," Storm said. "The had a choice to make out there. Do they lay their hoses to fight the fire or do they rescue? They chose to do rescue operations which delayed some of the fire fighting by about 15 minutes, according to the report, but they were able to save lives."

With the fire marshal's investigation report came recommendations for preventing such a fire in the future, much of which is still implemented today and as since been modified to fit present-day technology and regulations. Some of these regulations included enclosed vertical openings, two exit paths on all floors, steel studs and fire-resistant drywall, sprinkler systems even in laundry chutes, horizontal smoke compartments and regular evacuation training by hospital staffs.

Storm said because of the St. Anthony Hospital fire, several hospitals took note of changes that needed to be made to ensure the safety of patients, staff and others in case of a fire.

"A lot of hospitals took notice of this and said, 'Wait a minute. Our hospital is just as old. Our hospital is in just the same shape. What do we need to do?' And in Illinois they made their own changes and federally they did as well," Storm said. "There were a lot of actions taken and a lot of safety things done."

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.

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