Cause of Mo. Katie Jane Memorial Home fire still a mystery
Remains the deadliest nursing home fire in U.S. history.
By Susan Weich
St. Louis Post Dispatch
Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
WARRENTON, Mo. — About 35 worshippers had just finished the third stanza of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," when the cries for help rang out.
The Katie Jane Nursing Home was on fire, and the minister and his parishioners hurriedly led 22 residents from the chapel of the doomed care center.
Even 50 years later, the helplessness during the fire remains with those who were there.
"It was just eternal flames when we got there, rolling flames," said Bert Cook, 80, who worked as a maintenance man at the home for 33 years. "People were all over, the Fire Department, the whole town."
Seventy-two patients died as rescuers tried to put out the inferno 50 years ago Saturday.
The cause of the blaze, considered the deadliest nursing home fire in U.S. history, remains a mystery. Some said it was arson; some blamed outdated electrical wiring. Others claimed it began when one of the bedridden residents smoked.
The swift spread of the flames made attempts to save the residents all but impossible.
A wisp of smoke
The fire started about 2:40 p.m. in a linen closet on the first floor of the annex, one of two buildings housing the 149 residents of the home, according to the report filed by the Missouri Highway Patrol, newspaper accounts and recent interviews with five people who were there that day.
Feb. 17, 1957, was a Sunday, and the nursing home was crowded with visitors. The temperature outside rose to 53 degrees, warm enough for some of the residents to crack their windows open. That action was later said to have aided the spread of the fire.
The Rev. Walter H. Schwane, a Lutheran minister, was leading a hymn on the first floor of the main building when a scream interrupted the chorus.
The warning came from Charlotte Schowe, who had discovered the fire. She was visiting her uncles, Louis and August Boekemeier, when a wisp of smoke drifted by the door of their room, just south of the linen closet. She went to investigate and saw fire shooting out of a wall near the closet. Schowe ran through the buildings screaming "Fire."
When she returned to rescue her uncles about 10 minutes later, she couldn't get past the dense smoke, she told police. Her uncles never made it out.
Police reported that the two-story brick buildings were engulfed in flames by the time they got to the scene at 3:08 p.m.
Gene Luetkemeyer, now 71, arrived about the same time. He had grabbed a camera after hearing the commotion and headed toward Katie Jane.
"The smoke was billowing from every nook and cranny and window in the whole building," Luetkemeyer said from his Kansas City home. "People had found ladders and were trying to get people out, but it went up so fast," he said. "There was nothing you could do for any of them, really."
Russell Brockfeld, 80, described a similar scene when he arrived after 3 p.m. Some of the bedridden were being carried out on mattresses, some emerged from the fire with only remnants of their clothing and people rushed to cover them with blankets.
Brockfeld, who owned a gas station near the nursing home, pulled one of the residents out of a first-floor window before he was driven back by the heat.
"When you think about the residents who were there, so many of them couldn't walk - they were bedfast - so what could we do?" he said.
Brockfeld and Cook, who still live in Warrenton, had been bowling in a tournament with the home's owner, Woodrow S. O'Sullivan, in Montgomery City that afternoon. When they heard the news, they sped to the home, near the intersection of Highways 47 and M.
"The minute we hit Highway 70, you could see the smoke in the air, so we knew it was not good," he said.
Cook and Brockfeld said O'Sullivan was devastated by the loss of life that day.
"He did run a good home and was very concerned about his patients," Brockfeld said.
Dry as a tinderbox
Lester Kamper, 83, says he is the only Warrenton firefighter left who was at the fire. Kamper couldn't get there until 5 p.m., and by then, "it was all over," he said.
Recovery efforts were hampered in those early hours because of the blaze's intense heat. Firefighters pumped water on the buildings continuously from Sunday until Tuesday, just to cool things off, he said. Volunteers toted gasoline to the firetruck to keep it running.
Some of the brick walls left were unstable and were knocked down for the safety of the workers. A makeshift morgue was set up at a grocery across the street.
In the days that followed, Luetkemeyer said that the work was tedious and sometimes gruesome, as 40 volunteers used picks and shovels to sort through the debris. Police inspected each scoop. Sometimes bones were uncovered.
Kamper, of Warrenton, said that the next weekend, so many visitors came to look at the ruins that auxiliary police and firefighters, including Kamper, were called in to help handle traffic in the town of about 1,600. The Sheriff's Department kept guard over the debris, to discourage souvenir seekers.
Police determined that the fire was aided by the wood in the building, which was more than 50 years old and "dry as a tinderbox." The building's temperature was kept between 85 and 90 degrees to keep the older residents comfortable, and this further dried out the wood, the report said.
But even if the fire had burned slowly, police said, the lack of safety measures at the nursing home probably would have resulted in a similar death toll. The home had no evacuation plan, no alarm system to warn residents, no fire escapes and no sprinkler system. Bed patients were housed on upper floors and some of the patients were locked in their rooms. The conditions were commonplace at nursing homes at that time.
The week after the fire, the bodies of 14 of the victims unclaimed by relatives were placed in a common grave at Warrenton Cemetery. The townspeople collected $200 for a monument that lists the names of those buried there plus four others, whose remains never were found.
Today, medical offices and a bank are situated near the site of the former home in the center of the town, which has about 7,000 residents.
One month later, then-Gov. James T. Blair signed legislation giving Missouri's Division of Health broad powers to establish and enforce minimum standards on safety, comfort and health at convalescent and nursing homes. Later that year, a rule book outlined some of the first regulations for nursing homes. Homes were required to get an annual license and inspection. Facilities were divided into three levels of care and staffing levels were mandated. The bill established an advisory council to assist the director of the health division in administering the law. Fines for violations were increased to up to $100 a day.
Robert Solomon, spokesman for the National Fire Protection Administration, said many improvements to safety had come about since the fire in Warrenton. "Unfortunately, it takes tragedies to get people thinking about these things," he said.
Still at issue are automatic sprinkler systems, which are required in new nursing homes but not in older facilities. The federal government held public hearings at the end of last year on a proposal to mandate sprinkler systems in all nursing homes.
The lack of sprinklers was cited at another deadly fire in Missouri in November. Eleven people died in a fire at Anderson Guest House, a residential care facility.
Kamper said that for years after the Katie Jane fire, when he and his wife would travel and tell people they were from Warrenton, they'd mention the fire.
Brockfeld acknowledges that it's a sad chapter of the town's history, one that some people would rather forget.
"You're bringing back memories I hadn't thought about in years," he said. "It was what everyone called our great catastrophe."
Deadliest fires in U.S. facilities for older adults since 1950
Katie Jane Nursing Home, Warrenton, Feb. 17, 1957; 72 dead of 149 patients.
Golden Age Nursing Home, Fitchville, Ohio, Nov. 23, 1963; 63 dead of 84 patients.
Nursing home, Largo, Fla., March 29, 1953; 33 dead, including 32 patients of 45.
Convalescent home, Marietta, Ohio, (nurses present but may not have been a nursing home), Jan. 9, 1970; 31 dead of 46 patients.
Rest home, Keansburg, N.J., (sheltered care facility, not a nursing home, some residents were older adults), Jan. 9, 1981; 31 dead of unreported total of residents.
Nursing home (intermediate care type), Chicago, Jan. 30, 1976; 24 dead of 83 patients.
Boarding home, Bradley Beach, N.J., (boarding home, not a nursing home, most residents were older adults), July 26, 1980; 24 dead of 36 residents.
Convalescent home, Hoquiam, Wash., (may not have been a nursing home), Jan. 30, 1951; 21 dead of 29 patients.
Nursing home, Hillsboro, Ark., Oct. 31, 1952; 20 killed of 70 patients.
Nursing home, Hartford, Conn., Feb. 26, 2003; 16 dead of 148 patients.
Source: National Fire Protective Association