At 2:40 a.m. on a damp, chilly night 60 Januarys ago, Roy Porter and Lester Schick were an instant away from crushing, fiery death.
Flames were roaring from the windows of St. Elizabeth’s, a hospital mental ward on Davenport’s west side, when Schick, who was Davenport’s fire chief, shouted to Porter, “Come on. Go in the front door.”
The two climbed outside wooden stairs and were in the tile foyer when Schick yelled, “Get the hell out of here.”
The hospital lobby’s heavy, burning ceiling was collapsing.
“It was falling down on us, on fire. We were within seconds of dying,” said Porter, now 85, of Bettendorf. In 1950, he was a fire department volunteer known as a Second Alarmer.
Porter talked last week, remembering the anniversary — Jan. 7, 1950 — of the worst fire disaster in Iowa and in the history of the Quad-Cities.
Had they not escaped, Porter and Schick would have been on the list of 41 who died in the horrific fire.
Today, four people — two firefighters and two Second Alarmers — are the only known witnesses who can tell in graphic detail of being there on that night.
ALL HAVE STORIES of helplessness, of not being able to rescue frantic women patients who were trapped behind windows locked shut by rusty iron bars … of the screaming victims … of the smell of burning flesh.
“It was a nightmare,” Darrell Doss of Davenport says. Doss, now 85, was with Truck 3, an aerial company. He clung high atop a ladder, trying to rescue patients trapped on the top floors. A dramatic picture of Doss, carrying an aged woman down a high ladder, was published around the world.
“I know I rescued three women that night, maybe four,” he says.
Laverne Griffin of Davenport, who was with Engine 7, is now 92. He shudders to think of that night when he kept unloading body bags, brought to the fire scene by Davenport mortuaries. “Bodies were on sheets. A nun stood by me, trying to identify the dead.”
Ken Olson of Davenport, now 93, a Second Alarmer, says his mind “will always sicken”when he recalls that night. “It was horrible, a thing you never expect. I can still hear the screams.”
ST. ELIZABETH'S was a tragedy waiting to happen, a three-story, 78-year-old brick building with wood framing, no sprinkler system or fire alarms and thickly varnished floors that fed the flames. The fire was started by a patient who ignited curtains with a cigarette lighter. It roared through the old building, fed by a winter wind.
There are a dozen reasons for the heavy loss of life, but foremost was that all the windows were barred. It was as if the patients were in jail, with no way out except through corridors that were ablaze or smothered in smoke.
“We could hear the women inside screaming, but we couldn’t get to them,” says Doss, who recalls how hard he and other firefighters fought to rescue them.
“The windows were locked with metal straps and bars that were rusted shut. Those of us on ladders hacked away the wood window frames and then tore off the bars. Over and over, we could see women at the windows. They were pounding and yelling. The worst was to see someone at a window, and then a puff of fire and they would be gone. It was horrible.”
Of the 65 people in St. Elizabeth’s that night, firefighters rescued 24. One of the victims was Anna Neal, the only nurse on duty.
SECOND ALARMERS were volunteers who responded to major fires. They hauled fire hoses, prepared food for fatigued firefighters, and often were called “a fireman’s best friend.” The group is disbanded, with Porter and Olson among the few still living.
“I was a good friend of Chief Schick,” Porter says, “and was alongside him when he said ‘Go in.’ Fire was moving fast above us. The chief wanted to know what was happening on the first floor, maybe rescue someone.”
Porter and Schick heard flames roaring above them. Collapsing ceilings are death traps for firefighters and the hospital’s burning ceiling was about to cave in on them.
“The Good Lord must have loved us that night, or we certainly would never have made it.”
Doss, a decorated Marine who fought battles in the South Pacific during World War II, repeated so many times as we talked last week: “It was a night of sadness, so sad. So horrible.”
St. Elizabeth’s was one of two mental ward facilities at Mercy Hospital, now Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park. It housed female patients. St. John’s, a smaller facility nearby, was for male patients. St. John’s was torn down eight months after the fire.
THE ST. ELIZABETH'S FIRE and loss of life is a reflection of how radically care for the mentally ill has changed.
No longer are the majority of patients locked up in wards. Many live with families, in group homes or on their own. Medications are an alternative to hospitalization.
But challenges abound. Studies say that a significant percentage of those in prison and jail are mentally ill. Government programs and social services that help them face perpetual budget crunches.
Near the site where the 1950 fire claimed 41 victims is a small cemetery. Sixteen of the St. Elizabeth’s victims are buried there.
“I still can’t drive by the location of the fire and the little cemetery without shuddering,” Olson says.
Contact Bill Wundram at (563) 383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.