Shortly before midnight on April 4, 1949, a nun on staff at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Effingham, Illinois, smelled smoke and told 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. But by then it was already too late for 74 of the 128 people working or being cared for at St. Anthony’s.
The hospital, built in 1873, had open corridors, three unenclosed wooden staircases, and three laundry chutes, only one of which had protected openings. There was no fire alarm or sprinkler system. The building, though well-kept, was completely outdated.
Among the 74 who died were 20 staffers, including Ries, and 10 newborns. During the fire, someone heard nurse 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.
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