This article was first published in the January/February 2019 issue of NFPA Journal.
At 5 a.m. on February 18, 1923, attendants at the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane, located on Ward’s Island in New York City, noticed a metal ceiling tile glowing red-hot in a hallway leading to patient rooms. Fearing an impending fire, they called patients to breakfast to move them away from the hallway and into the dining room. Minutes later, their fears were realized as flames burst through the ceiling, according to an NFPA bulletin on the incident published later that year.
Although the attendants’ actions undoubtedly saved lives, not everyone escaped. Twenty-four patients and three attendants died in the blaze, according to the bulletin. Three years earlier, officials had identified the facility—one of the largest psychiatric hospitals in the world, with over 6,000 patients—as being at high risk for a catastrophic fire, but fire and life safety improvements were never made.
After the fire spread, rescue work became difficult “as the patients became excited and had to be dragged out by attendants,” the bulletin reported. Firefighting was further hampered by sub-zero weather and the extreme difficulty in getting apparatus to the island. “The New York City force had to go to the fire without equipment as there was only a small ferry, of insufficient capacity for fire apparatus, to the island,” the bulletin said. “Fireboats had to run hose lines for nearly half a mile before water reached the fire.”
The cause of the fire wasn’t reported, but the bulletin explains that the facility was similar to thousands of other institutional buildings throughout the United States and Canada, which at the time often experienced fires due to “defective chimneys, poorly installed stoves and furnaces, defective electrical equipment, careless handling of [flammable] liquids, spontaneous combustion in accumulations of rubbish, smoking, and carelessness with matches.”
In 1920, the National Board of Fire Underwriters surveyed the Manhattan State Hospital and recommended the installation of automatic fire sprinklers and other safeguards because its buildings lacked fire-resistant features and contained blind attics and other concealed spaces that made the structures “veritable fire traps,” the NFPA bulletin says. The board also cited an inadequate and unreliable water supply and a poorly equipped on-site firefighting service, which used “an ancient horse-drawn engine.”
The bulletin noted that the superintendent of the hospital recognized the fire hazard and had repeatedly tried to obtain more equipment and funding from state and city authorities, to no avail.
Read more from the January/February issue of NFPA Journal online.