Smoke and ashes floating through the air

Jerry Katz in the 1950s

I was 10 years old when the hospital burned. My family lived on Franklin Avenue, so we were just a couple of blocks away. I was very familiar with the hospital grounds. The area west of the hospital building wasn’t developed at that point; it was essentially a vacant lot. My friends and I played there. There was a fairly consistent group of 10 boys of about the same age who hung around together, although sometimes my kid sister tagged along. We used the space mostly to play baseball and football, and there was plenty of room to do it.

On the night of the fire, my sister and I were asleep in our beds. Our mother woke us up and we stood in the doorway of the living room. I wanted to go outside, but my mother said, “No.” We all looked northeast in the direction of the fire. I remember there was a strange reddish glow that shone through the roll-up shades over the windows that faced in the direction of the fire. We could see smoke and ashes floating through the air in our direction.

My father, Robert Katz, went to the hospital to help evacuate bodies to the morgue, and more than a day passed before we saw him again. It hadn’t been too many years since he had returned from the scenes of World War II, so he had recent experience in being face to face with terrible things. One story I remember him telling had to do with another helper who didn’t have any wartime experience. The Red Cross was on the scene to provide coffee and donuts, but my father’s co-worker couldn’t handle them; the sight and smell of food made him want to throw up.

The day after the fire was a school day, so of course, we went to school. But our teacher didn’t give any lessons. She knew that many of the kids had been up all night. The fire happened after 11 p.m. when we were in bed, but the town kids heard the noise or were told by their parents. Rather than forcing us to try to pay attention, our teacher told us to just put our heads down on the desk that day. But then the next day, school was back on as usual.

We did not lose any family members to the fire. I did know the Aderman family. They lived two blocks west of the hospital and pretty close to our house. Mrs. Aderman was actually in the hospital during the fire because she was going to have a baby. She got out of the building in time, and had her baby at home. We always called him “Lucky,” because he was lucky to get out of the hospital. There was a teacher from Central School who was in the hospital. She jumped to get out, but was hurt badly enough that she wasn’t able to come back to teach at Central for some time.

We kids were attracted to the site of the burned-out hospital, but of course, we weren’t allowed to go there. For awhile, there were National Guard soldiers blocking the streets that led to the hospital because so many people wanted to go see the ruins. As time went on, the part of the hospital that was still standing was demolished. Loads of debris was dumped in the area where we used to play. There were interesting things in the pile.

I saw twisted instruments and things that looked like medical tools. There were also thousands of small white octagonal tiles. They must have come from the wall or floor of a surgery or some other room like that. What surprised me is that those tiles did not appear to be damaged. Other loads of debris were taken a little further away and dumped in a vacant lot on St. Louis Avenue.

One last memory I have of the fire has to do with Charlie Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain and my father were both present on the night of the fire. At some point later on, Mr. Chamberlain told my dad a story about himself. When my dad was in World War II, he was wounded while in a fox hole. He was taken to a hospital for treatment. During his stay there, the Germans bombed the hospital. The shell passed through the roof, went down to the basement, and exploded.

My dad and many others were literally blown through the walls. What my dad didn’t know at the time was that Charlie Chamberlain was on active duty there at that same time. He was one of the soldiers who helped to load my dad onto a stretcher so that he could get treatment for a new set of wounds. Those injuries left my dad with a damaged back that caused him pain for the rest of his life.

Jerry Katz is retired from Crossroads Press. A resident of Effingham, he is mechanically inclined and an airplane enthusiast. Jerry volunteers frequently at the Effingham County Museum and serves on the Museum Board.

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’s 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.