Monday, January 07, 2008

January 7

Just past 2:00 a.m. on this date in 1950, a fire destroyed the St. Elizabeth’s wing of Mercy Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, where more than five dozen mental patients -- nearly all of whom were women -- resided behind wire mesh and bars. Within minutes, a tornado of fire had raced uninhibited through elevator and dumbwaiter shafts, consuming much of the three-story, 81-year-old building. By the time more than a hundred firefighters arrived at the hospital complex, there was little to be done for those trapped inside; the initial body count of 37 rose of the next few days to a final death toll of 41. One of the victims, Alice James, had been admitted to the hospital a mere six hours earlier.

Davenport’s assistant fire chief Harry Lang described the scene as “horrible,” in no small degree because the patients -- imprisoned for what would have been described as their own security -- were unreachable.
We couldn’t get into the building because of the intense heat, so we put up every ladder we could. But those windows were barred.

Even as firemen stood on ladders, hacking frantically with axes at the window gratings, the heat cracked the glass and people inside disappeared into the flames before our eyes.
One firefighter described the building -- which lacked a sprinkler system -- as having “burned like paper.”

Investigators soon discovered that a young patient named Elnora Epperly had set the fire. Believing that her husband had died and that she needed to escape, Epperly used a cigarette lighter to set fire to the curtains in her room. Initially charged with murder, Elnora Epperly never faced trial after an inquest ruled that she was insane and thus not responsible for her actions.

After spending the next several months in an Illinois hospital, Epperly was released into the custody of her husband, whom she may have been pleased to discover was still very much alive.