I jumped from 2nd floor as the hospital burned

Anita Sidener in 1949

My name is Anita Sidener and I was at the hospital when it burned. I am 92. My family lived south of Altamont. My husband brought me to the hospital because I was getting ready to have a baby. I already had a 2-year-old daughter at home. At the end of the day, my doctor went home because he did not think my labor was going fast enough. My husband went home so I could sleep.

I was sedated, but I don't know what the drug was. I don't remember getting a shot, so it was probably a pill. I was in a bed in a room by myself at the end of a hallway. It didn't seem to be a regular patient room. There wasn't much furniture. There were two windows, and those windows were on two walls next to each other, which is why I believe I was at the end of a hallway.

It was loud voices and yelling that woke me. I don't know the time. I was fuzzy from the sedative. The noise I heard seemed to be coming from outside the building. I went to the window to look out. I didn't see any people, but I did see smoke and concrete down below.

The door to my room was closed, and when I went to open it, I could see smoke and fire to my left. I went across the hall to a room where there were two other women. I think they had already had their babies. They were awake and walking around the room. We were all afraid. We didn't know what to do.

I didn't see any staff around at all. We decided we had to jump. It was 2 1/2 stories down. I went first. I don't know what happened to the other ladies, if they fell on top of me or what. I was put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby house. I don't know whose house it was, but the people who lived around the hospital grounds were very good to take people in. At some point, I was taken to a clinic.

I credit Dr. Webb with saving my life. He saw how badly hurt I was, and if he hadn't taken care of me, I would not be here. Meanwhile, my husband had come back to town and was looking for me. That meant he was looking at the dead bodies in the morgue. I felt so sorry that he had to do that.

I went back into active labor and my little boy was stillborn. He was a full-term baby and we named him Robert Dale Sidener. I did get to see him, and to hold his hand. I was grateful that we got to bury him as he was, and not like all those other babies that were in the nursery.

I was sent to a hospital in St. Louis for a long time, and then I went home. It took me months to heal because I had so many fractures. I was in a full body cast from my neck on down, because my back was broken. There was a second cast on my right arm that went from below the armpit down to my hand. I could not bend my elbow, because the cast went straight down. My right ankle was broken and my right heel had been crushed when I jumped. That cast went from my toes to my pelvic area. The heel problem stayed with me, and it still affects how I walk today.

Because of the way I delivered, I had female problems. Anemia was the result, and the nurses had to give me iron shots to build up my blood. The shots were big, and medicine was black in color. They had to use a big needle and they hated to do it because they knew it would hurt. When they would come into my room, they would tell me how sorry they were that they had to give me those shots.

It took me many years to recover from the mental effects of the fire. I still don't like to hear ambulance sirens. Worst than that was the guilt over my little boy's death. I kept thinking that it was my fault that he died. People, and even ministers, would tell me that I hadn't done anything wrong, that I couldn't help it that he died. But I couldn't make myself believe it. It is only in recent years that my current minister was able to counsel me in such a way that I could accept the truth.

Anita Sidener is one of the few survivors who were actually inside the hospital at the time of the fire. She remains acutely conscious of its long-term effects. Anita is part of the St. Elmo community.

In their own words

On the night of April 4, 1949 – 70 years ago – a raging fire lit the sky over Effingham as St. Anthony Hospital burned. Devastation of the structure would take only minutes, but the fire's devastating impact lingers to this day. There were 128 patients, staff and visitors in the building. The fire claimed 77 lives. Linda Ruholl, nurse historian at the Effingham County Museum, has collected 11 "oral histories" from people affected by that night. The Effingham Daily News will share these stories of tragedy and triumph throughout April.

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