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Herald-Dispatch photo archive -

On Nov. 26, 1952, a ward building at Huntington State Hospital, now Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, caught fire, killing 17 people.

Gallery: Huntington State Hospital fire, Nov. 26, 1952

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 12:11 PM

On Nov. 26, 1952, a ward building at Huntington State Hospital, now Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, caught fire, killing 17 people. Some readers may find these images (and the news story below) disturbing.

Established on a 33-acre tract in 1899 as the West Virginia Asylum, the state-supported hospital has evolved from the dark ages when as many as 1,800 patients were crammed into open wards and the staff included a superintendent and seven or eight physicians. Today, it is a 90-bed facility.

In 1958, West Virginia had 5,500 patients placed in a half-dozen mental health facilities scattered over the state. Because of improved treatment and drugs, that number had decreased to 2,400 in 1976.

The Hartley Act, which was brought on by a class action suit, caused more dramatic changes in the 1980s. The act mandated that all state hospitals eliminate open wards and provide only two-bed, semi-private rooms for mentally ill patients.

West Virginia now operates just two psychiatric care hospitals, Huntington and Weston, W.Va.

In 1999, Gov. Cecil Underwood announced that Huntington State Hospital would be renamed the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in honor of the retiring doctor and her dedication to bringing mental health issues to the state's attention.

This old Associated Press story about the fire was found on the GenDisasters website.

HUNTINGTON HOSPITAL FIRE KILLS 14 PATIENTS.

NINE WOMEN, 5 YOUNG GIRLS ARE VICTIMS.

ATTENDANTS ARE CREDITED WITH 'HEROIC JOB' BY FIREMEN.

Huntington, Nov. 26 -- (AP) -- Fourteen women and children perished tonight in a fierce blaze that swept a three-story building at the Huntington State Hospital, a mental institution.

President Joe F. Burdett of the State Board of Control, which supervises the state's institutions, announced the death toll as complete and official.

Two hours after the fire roared through the 56-year-old building, Burdett said the blaze took 15 lives. After a thorough recheck, he brought the figure down one.

Five of the victims were young girls, 15 or younger. The others were women, the oldest 89.

There were about 275 patients in the three-story brick structure.

The fire broke out in the basement shortly after 7 p.m. and burned for about two hours. The flames were confined to the first two floors but the thick acrid smoke played havoc with the youngsters trapped on the top level.

Firemen had to cut through heavy wire mesh with acetylene torches to get inside the building when the front entrance became an inferno. The screaming patients had to be removed by means of an old wrought iron circular stairway at the rear of the building.

The rescuers couldn't use stretchers on the narrow escapeway, so they bundled the patients --some alive, some dead -- in blankets and carried them down on their shoulders.

Fire Capt. C. C. Martin credited attendants on duty with a "heroic job" in getting the most of the patients out of the building.

He said they tripped the latches on the ward doors so the patients could flee by themselves.

The kitchen, one of the several buildings nearby, was turned into a hasty receiving station for the screaming, weeping, vomiting victims.

One reporter called it a "sorry sight." The patients were sprawled on the kitchen floor, some of them dead, most with only a blanket covering them, reeking with the strong smell of smoke.

One fireman said the blaze started in the basement. A staff physician who refused to be quoted said some of the patients sometimes went to the basement to smoke during off hours, which was against the rules.

The hospital built in 1896, has been under recent scrutiny both through the press and the state legislature for its condition.

"I know it's too late to say this," Burdett said, "but we submitted to the budget director a recommendation for one million dollars for fireproofing all this -- ward buildings one, two, three and four."

It was ward building four which burned.

Burdett said the requested appropriation was cut out somewhere along the line in the last legislative session.

A new building was being constructed on the grounds nearby which was to house the patients in the structure which burned. They would have been transferred into the quarters withing a few weeks.

Two other fires have occurred at the state hospital within the last two years -- one in a third floor sewing room and the other in a basement storage bin. Both were extinguished quickly.

Burdett said:

"The same situation exists at Spencer and Weston State (two other state mental institutions).

Recommendations for fireproofing those two hospitals and Huntington have been approved by the budget director for submission to the 1953 legislature."

He added that part of Spencer and Weston State Hospitals already have been fireproofed.

Two elderly women were listed as in serious condition from burns.

The only other person listed as injured was a Huntington fireman who suffered a broken foot when a battering ram fell on him.

All three members of the State Board of Control were at the hospital during cleaning-up operations. They are, besides Burdett, L. Steele Trotter, treasurer, and Dell White, Secretary.

State Fire Marshal C. A. Raper, also at the scene, said he had not had a chance to make an inspection or estimate of the damage.

Here's List of Dead In Huntington Fire.

Huntington, Nov. 26 -- (AP) -- Here is the list of dead in tonight's fire at Huntington State Hospital as released by Chief of Detectives Herman A. Frazier of the city police.

ADA CARVER, 89, Huntington.

JOYCE TUCKER, 20, Fairmont.

ELIZABETH BRIGHT, 31, Wellsburg.

EVANGELINE ELZY, 15, Dunbar.

PATRICIA LONG, 15, Sutton.

LENA WENTZ, 11, Cabell County.

LILLIAN GOULD, 36, Huntington.

GERALDINE CURRY, 26, Mingo County.

CASSIE SUMMERFIELD, 44, Huntington.

AVANELE KEIFER, 15, Huntington.

ETHEL MUNDAY, 68, Charleston.

HELEN FINDLEY, 33, Sistersville.

PATRICIA CLARK, 14, Vallscreek, McDowell County.

MADALINE PRESTON, 24, Maidsville, Monongalia County.

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