Warrenton Nursing Home Fire
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The Warrenton Nursing Home fire took place at the Katie Jane Memorial Home for the Aged in Warrenton, Missouri on February 17, 1957 and killed 72 people. The 2 1⁄2-story facility, located sixty miles west of St. Louis, housed 155 elderly people and had been converted just two years earlier after having previously served as the site of Central Wesleyan College.
The blaze began at approximately 2:40 p.m. in a first floor annex linen closet during a Sunday afternoon religious service. On the first floor of the main building, Lutheran minister Walter Schwane was leading a hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," when a scream was heard from one of the visitors who had noticed smoke near the room of her uncles. Concerned, she soon saw intense flames near the closet and screamed "Fire!" as she raced throughout the facility.
Within 30 minutes, the annex building became an inferno with local residents offering help in attempting to rescue residents. Eventually, the building's roof caved in, with flames shooting high into the air and smoke visible from 30 miles away.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, it was determined that a number of factors served as potential causes, including wood in the building that was more than 50 years old, coupled with thermostats often kept at 85-90 degrees to keep residents comfortable during the frigid winter months.
Ironically, the facility had been inspected just one week earlier by a state official. However, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the specter of arson was suggested by one State Police officer when it was disclosed that the sister of the Home's manager had run a similar facility in Hillsboro, Missouri in which 18 people died in a 1952 fire.
During the subsequent investigation, the notion of arson was dismissed as the final determination was that the blaze started from an undetermined cause. Despite this finding, the Home had been operating without a license, had inadequate fire escapes and had no sprinkler system. In addition, there was no alarm system or evacuation plan, while some residents were locked in their rooms, a common practice of that period.
The end result of those omissions came when Missouri governor James T. Blair signed a bill in March 1957 that established minimum safety standards for nursing homes in the state.
- "At Least 70 Die as Home for Aged Burns in Missouri," New York Times, February 18, 1957, pp. 1,17
- "Inquiries Started in Fire Fatal to 71," New York Times, February 19, 1957, p. 20
- "Finding in Nursing Home Fire," New York Times, March 5, 1957, p. 24
KMOV.com looked back at the tragedy on the 50th anniversary: