Author(s): Kathleen Robinson. Published on March 2, 2015.

SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT on April 4, 1949, a nun on staff at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Effingham, Illinois, smelled smoke and alerted the switchboard operator that there was a fire in the basement. The operator immediately phoned Frank Ries, the hospital engineer, then called the fire department and notified the sisters at the adjoining convent.

St Anthony Hospital Fire

Courtesy: AHA Student Films YouTube Channel

Ries raced from his home nearby and entered the hospital’s basement, where a nun reported seeing him emptying a fire extinguisher onto flames pouring from a laundry chute. Unable to extinguish the blaze, Ries apparently ran up to the first floor and emptied another extinguisher into the chute. He continued to race through the facility, yelling for nurses to close the doors to patients’ rooms.

In the hospital’s second-floor nursery, a 22-year-old nurse named Fern Riley became aware of the growing fire. There was a fire escape just outside the nursery’s window, but she was reluctant to leave the infants in her care.

The three-story, 100-bed St. Anthony’s, operated by the Sisters of St. Francis, had been built in 1873, mainly of wood and brick. It had been enlarged several times, and covered about 21,000 square feet. It had open corridors and three unenclosed wooden staircases, as well as three laundry chutes, only one of which had protected openings. Of the two unprotected chutes, one ran from the third-floor attic to the basement laundry area. There was no fire alarm or sprinkler system, although the state fire marshal’s report noted 28 fire extinguishers on the premises and a 50-foot length of hose line connected to a regular water supply on each floor. There were two exterior fire escapes at the end of corridors, and two exterior escape slides. State fire marshal records showed that the hospital had been inspected in 1944 and found to comply with all the orders and recommendations of the deputy state fire marshal. In short, the building, though well-kept, was completely outdated.

Volunteer firefighters arrived to find flames bursting through the hospital’s windows and roof. Without his full 23-man crew, however, the assistant fire chief chose to concentrate on rescue rather than attacking the fire. Twenty minutes passed before the rest of the crew arrived and trained its hoses on the south windows and the west side of the building. Eventually, all three of the department’s pumpers delivered water on the fire. Another five pumpers from nearby towns joined the effort, but by the time all eight were operating, the building was little more than a smoking ruin.

Of the 128 people working or being cared for at St. Anthony’s, 74 perished. Among them were 20 staffers, including Frank Ries, as well as two visitors and 52 patients. Among the patients were 10 newborns. During the fire, someone heard Fern Riley shout, “My babies! I’ve got to stay with my babies!” Her body was later discovered in the ruins of the nursery. The cause of the fire was never determined.

KATHLEEN ROBINSON is NFPA Journal editorial operations manager.