When the Gong Rings
A Fire History of Charleston, Illinois

Area Fire Log  1949
Effingham, Illinois Suffers Central Illinois' Worst Fire




Effingham, Illinois is about 32 miles southwest of Charleston on the present Interstate 57. In 1949, the highways to Effingham were U.S. 40 and U.S. 45. In 1949, Melvin Taylor was a new fireman for Charleston. This article is a Charleston Courier piece covering the 10th anniversary of a great fire for Central Illinois, and was written about was on April 5, 1949. The building that burnt was the large three story St. Anthony's Hospital in Effingham. This is a summary of the Courier article.



By: Hayden Bradford, UP Staff Correspondent Effingham, HI., April 5A fire flashed through the 80 year-old St. Anthony's hospital early today, trapping scores of helpless patients, and authorities feared that at least 57 persons perished.

Ten newborn babies died in the disaster, one of the worst hospital fires in the nation's history. Another baby was born dead after its mother was injured critically in jumping out of a window. Shortly before 1 p.m., CST, 34 bodies had been counted, 3i of them in the temporary morgue and three at other points. Of these, 26 were identified. The fire started shortly before midnight in the basement of the three-story brick building, which supposedly was fire-proof and had its own fire extinguishing system. The cause of the fire was not known. The flames shot up a laundry chute and swept through all floors.

Patients died in attempts to crawl through thick smoke and flames that filled the corridors. Others died in their beds, some with their limbs in casts or suspension slings. Fireman Charles Jaycee said about 12 patients jumped from windows, killing at least one and injuring several. Others were helped from first floor windows.

At least 15 persons were injured in escaping from the flames, police said.

Mrs. Wenton Sidney, 22 who was in a delivery room annex waiting to have a baby, jumped screaming from a second floor window, she suffered a broken back and right arm. Her baby was born dead an hour later. The bodies of nine other babies were recovered from the ruins and taken to an improvised morgue in a hall near the hospital.


Authorities said that another newborn child of Mrs. C.J. Springer, died in the flames. Mrs. Springer escaped by jumping from a window. Much of the interior of the building collapsed. Floors and ceilings were piled on the bodies and authorities said the exact death toll might never be known, the hospital records were destroyed. Hours after the flames were put out firemen were digging through the debris and carrying bodies to an improvised morgue. The Rev. John J. Goff, pastor of St. Anthony's church connected with the hospital, said the best estimate of the number of persons in the building at the time the fire started was 134.

These included, he said, 108 patients, three non-patients, a Miss Mary Kessler, and 22 nuns. Rescuers' check lists showed that 57 patients and 20 nuns escaped. Miss Kessler died in the flames. The dead included Miss Fern Riley, 21, a nurse who refused to leave the babies and died a heroine apparently trying to save them, firemen said. Ben Bidenhorn was an ambulance attendant who helped victims from first floor windows. He received burns on his face and hands. He said he was asleep on the top floor when he was awakened by one of the sisters. "I saw smoke and opened the laundry chute, but I saw no flames and I hollered, 'Its downstairs.' I ran to the elevator and when I got there I found the whole place was on fire, both the first and second floors."

Frank Reis was the hospital engineer who lived next door. He dashed into the flaming building in an attempt to save his wife, a patient on the second floor. Some of the patients escaped by jumping from windows. One good story is about Mrs. Arnold Aderman who was having labor pains when the fire started. She climbed down a ladder from her second story room and was taken home and gave birth to a son. she and the baby were reported in good condition.

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