The flames from the St. Elizabeth's psychiatric facility for women were first noticed by a nurse in the obstetrics ward at nearby Mercy Hospital in west Davenport.
Ellen Hildebrand, who was on duty at Mercy in the early hours of Jan. 7, 1950, told her supervisor, who turned in the fire alarm at 2:06 a.m., according to a newspaper account in the Jan. 7, 1950, Davenport Daily Times, a predecessor of the Quad-City Times.
Ultimately, the fire that occurred 65 years ago Wednesday took the lives of 41 people — about 60 percent of the 67 women who were hospitalized at the time. It was the deadliest hospital fire in Quad-City and Iowa history.
In fact, it remains the third-deadliest hospital fire ever in the United States.
The event will be remembered Wednesday by Genesis Health System, the current owner and steward of the St. Elizabeth's property that sat off Marquette Street near West Central Park Avenue.
Genesis plans a 2 p.m. ceremony that will be open to the public at what now is Genesis Medical Center, 1401 W. Central Park. It also is near the site of a cemetery where about a dozen of those who perished in the blaze are buried.
Accounts of the fire uniformly reflected the horror and feelings of helplessness as the flames engulfed patients with disabilities who were locked in the facility behind barred windows.
Goerge Shirk, 91, lives today at Friendship Manor in Rock Island. But in 1950, he was driving for Royal Taxi and ended up transporting some firefighters to the scene.
"Every time I drive by there now, I think about that night," he said. "It was terrible. The firefighters did their best, but there were flames and smoke coming out of every window. They were overwhelmed."
According to Daily Times archives:
Nurse's aides, including Gladys Oostendorp, removed at least 12 patients safely from the structure. The aide said one woman she led out of the building hesitated because she wanted to return to her room to get her shoes.
A police officer, Richard Fee, was one of the first rescuers to reach St. Elizabeth's. He hopped on a fire department ladder and used an ax on the bars of a window to break it open.
"I saw a sight I guess I'll never forget," he said. Six women stared back at him, looking bewildered, he recalled. He was able to take several of them by the hand and lead the women to firefighters on the ladder.
Josephine O'Toole, a nurse's aide at St. Elizabeth's, was awakened by the screams of patients. She grabbed a coat, flung it over her nightgown and ran down to the basement, finding a patient en route. The two escaped via the basement.
Out of disaster, a positive
With the 65th anniversary of the tragedy at hand, Genesis employees are focusing on safety all week.
A nurse's aide, Anna Neal, was the only hospital employee to die in the fire, which claimed the lives of 40 patients. The Genesis focus will be on 41 safety essentials in honor of the death toll.
The fire did provide as an impetus for positive change, impacting fire codes all over the country, Davenport Fire Marshal Mike Hayman said.
"Unfortunately, fire codes and the changes in codes are dictated by catastrophic losses," he said, adding that the codes are updated constantly.
For instance, in 1950, St. Elizabeth's operated without a sprinkler system. That is now required in hospitals and most other public buildings, Hayman said. That includes what he calls "high life hazards," such as nursing homes, schools and homeless shelters.
Locked doors were another reason for the 1950 tragedy, and Hayman said that doors are now designed to open when a fire alarm is activated.
"Doors now can stop anyone from getting in, but they can't prevent you from getting out," he added.
An investigation determined the blaze may have been started by a patient who ignited curtains with a cigarette lighter, according to an 2010 account written by Quad-City Times columnist Bill Wundram on the fire's 60th anniversary.
Wundram described St. Elizabeth's as "a tragedy waiting to happen, a three-story, 78-year-old brick building with wood framing, no sprinkler system, no fire alarms and thickly varnished floors that fed the flames."