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1952 fire at State Hospital claimed 17 helpless victims

Nov. 25, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- It was Thanksgiving Eve, 1952. Most of the community was in a festive mood, already relaxing and looking forward to the next day's holiday.

Then, shortly after 7 p.m., the bells started ringing at the Huntington Fire Department's old Alarm Headquarters on 9th Street. The automated alarm system indicated a fire at the Huntington State Hospital on Norway Avenue. No one knew it in those first hectic minutes, but the alarm triggered what would be one of the most horrific chapters in Huntington's history.

After 60 years, the death toll in the 1952 fire at the State Hospital remains Huntington's worst in any fire ever. Fourteen women and young girls died that night. Doctors at the scene said all but one victim suffocated from smoke. One patient burned to death. Three more patients died of their injuries in the following days. The oldest victim was 89. The youngest was 11.

Sirens sounding, firefighters raced to the scene. There they found an old brick ward building in flames. A fire had erupted in the basement boiler room and quickly spread to the first floor. Women and children housed in the three-story structure frantically screamed for help, as firefighters used hammers, chisels and anything else they could find to batter away at the building's heavy wire-mesh window screens. Ultimately they had to cut through the mesh with acetylene torches to gain entry to the building.

The flames were confined to the building's first two floors but thick acrid smoke blanketed everything, hampering the firefighters' efforts. It took two hours to bring the fire under control, and for much of that time the smoke trapped the youngsters who were housed on the building's third floor.

Fire Captain Harry Damron supervised the evacuation of 35 to 40 children from the third floor of the burning structure

Gene Wheeler, a 28-year-old firefighter at the time, later recalled making his way into the burning building and finding a young girl, maybe 7 years old, tied to her bed, unable to move. Wheeler managed to untie and rescue her. Wheeler also remembered seeing fellow firefighter John Cannon carry a teenage girl to safety. (Twenty years later, in 1972, Cannon suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting a spectacular fire at the former Standard Ultramarine & Color Co. plant.)

Damron said that after it was thought all the patients had been evacuated to safety he found a woman wrapped in a blanket and laying on the floor under a bed. She was suffering from shock, he said.

The building housed 275 women and children that terror-filled night. Aided by members of the hospital's staff and some of the male patients, firefighters managed to rescue most of them.

The screaming patients had to be removed by means of an old wrought iron circular stairway at the rear of the building. Rescuers couldn't use stretchers on the narrow stairway, so they bundled the patients -- some alive, some dead -- in blankets and carried them down on their shoulders. Once the mesh screens were removed from the windows some patients were carried down ladders positioned at the windows.

The ward building had been designed to lock patients in, with little thought given as to how they might get out in case of a fire or other emergency.

Meals for the patients were prepared in a kitchen that was located in another building on the hospital campus. As victims were carried out of the burning ward building, the kitchen was turned into a makeshift receiving station for them.

A reporter on the scene that night described it as a "sorry sight."

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

The Herald-Dispatch quoted Police Captain Hercil H. Gartin as saying that a score of the city's doctors and as many nurses responded to a police appeal for medical help at the scene.

Fire Chief Floyd E. Crouse said all Huntington firefighters who were on duty were deployed at the hospital, along with 15 others who were off duty but were called in to help fight the fire and evacuate patients.

A number of volunteers aided the firefighters in the evacuation. Dr. Hiram Davis, the hospital's superintendent, praised their efforts. "I cannot be too generous in my praise of the work of the firemen and volunteers," Davis said. "I saw boys of high school age helping carry litters. No one had asked them. They just volunteered. The firemen were very efficient. We owe much to them."

No official ruling was made as to the fire's cause, although widespread speculation suggested a carelessly discarded cigarette. Smoking officially was banned in the building, but smokers -- patients and staff members alike -- frequently ignored the ban, going to the basement to light up.

The fire came at a time of growing public concern about conditions at the old hospital, established as an insane asylum in 1897 and called the Home for Incurables. In 1901 the name was changed to West Virginia Asylum, and in 1916, the name was changed again, this time to Huntington State Hospital. Although the name was changed, the institution's operating philosophy remained much the same as when it first opened -- to protect society from the mentally ill by locking them away in a place where they received little if any treatment.

By the time of the fire, a hospital designed to accommodate 500 patients was home to nearly 1,800. Medical staffing was grossly inadequate, with only a handful of trained doctors and nurses and attendants who were few in number, virtually untrained and poorly paid. The hospital's buildings were antiquated and poorly maintained.

Ironically, a new building was under construction on the night of the fatal fire, and a hospital official told reporters the patients in the building that burned were scheduled to be transferred to the new building within a few weeks.

But despite new construction and other sporadic improvements, conditions at the hospital remained a subject of concern until the 1970s when the patient population began to decline as a result of deinstitutionalization. In 1988, Huntington State became the first state-operated psychiatric hospital in West Virginia to be accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.

In 1995, the West Virginia Legislature changed the facility's name to Huntington Hospital. And in 1999, Gov. Cecil Underwood announced the renaming of Huntington Hospital as the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, a tribute to her lifetime career of helping the mentally ill. Today, the hospital is a 110-bed acute care mental health facility.

James E. Casto was a reporter and editor at The Herald-Dispatch for more than 40 years before he retired in 2004. He's the author of a number of books on local and regional history.