December 3, 2017

1940: Prescott's Hospital Destroyed by Fire

It was built in 1890 prior to building codes and, in retrospect, it was inevitably bound to happen. A trash chute running the height of the three-story building was built of wood, and on June 8th, 1940, someone threw a lit cigarette into it.

What resulted has been called "the second worst disaster in Prescott history;" surpassed only by the Great Fire of 1900.

"When the fire started, Mrs. Leslie Edson, the only nurse on duty at the time, smelled smoke and saw the flames leaping up a bamboo curtain on a back porch. Nurse Edson closed the window in the room of the patient she was attending and hurried to report the fire to the office girl, who called the fire department."

It was 1:30pm when "the firehouse of the Prescott Volunteer Fire Company received (the) call designating the 200 block on Grove street. The Mercy Hospital, Prescott's only hospital, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, was on fire. Three pieces of apparatus and 80 volunteer firemen answered the call. But the fire was already well underway when they arrived."

"Starting at the bottom of a wooden trash chute in the rear of three-story, brick building; (the blaze) flashed to the attic where it mushroomed under the roof sending smoke and flames roaring out under the eaves."

"In the attic, (the blaze) spread swiftly and leaping flames, fanned by a strong breeze consumed the roof."

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Meanwhile, "Nurse Edson directed the removal of the 25 patients to safety. Together with the hospital attendants--the sisters were in the chapel next door--she lead the patients down the stairs and to the exits from the burning building. Help arrived from the nearby transient CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Camp located at the fairgrounds."

"Patients were evacuated quickly and settled in nearby homes. Several recent operative patients, one performed" that morning and two the day before, "were included among the cases whose safety was threatened by the fire."

"All ambulances in town volunteered for service and gathered in front of the burning building to transfer patients. None of the cases which were transfered were critical;" and no injuries were reported.

"Only four patients had to be carried out. Nurse Edson went cooly about her duties until the last patient was out of the building. She was last to leave and in her own words it was then that she 'went to pieces.'"

"Patients were taken to Whipple, the Pioneers Home, and two local hotels. Nurses were assigned to duties in the created hospital units. Within 5 minutes the patients had been taken from the danger zone. Within 20 minutes, ambulances were transferring them to other rooms."

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"A volunteer crew of about 75 men and boys worked for an hour taking equipment and valuable furnishings from the building. Flames were licking at their heels as they cleared the rooms in the upper floor of the two story building of valuable property.

"The block in front of the hospital was quickly filled with trucks which carried away surgical equipment, chairs, tables, oxygen tanks and other hospital paraphernalia out of the danger zone."

Over a half-mile of firehose was utilized as well as nearly 400 feet of ladders. Additionally, eight salvage covers were used to protect the saved hospital equipment.

"Firemen were slightly handicapped by the fact that several of the nozzles (were) old-type without shutoffs, making it dangerous to take charged lines up the ladders. However the fire department has requested a sum to purchase new nozzles in the new city budget."

"The lower floor of the building became covered with burning debris (when) the roof and upper floor collapsed."

Another "heroic figure during the hour-long disaster period was Mother Annunciata, who...remained in (danger) checking hospital records until all patients had been accounted for."

"The building was regarded as a total loss although brick walls and cement sections of the structure remained standing after volunteer firemen had brought the flames under control."

"Mother Annunciata declined to estimate the amount of loss. An insurance policy on the building (was) in San Francisco but Sisters of Mercy said the coverage of the loss would be incomplete."

Unfortunately, the Sisters of Mercy would not rebuild. "After the fire, Prescott was without adequate hospital facilities until March 1, 1943, when the Community Hospital opened. It was during that two year-(nine month) period that the magnitude of the disastrous fire was brought home to the people."

Prescott suffered many fires, some with a greater loss of property and life. But saloons and stores come back or are replaced quickly. It was the loss of the vital infrastructure for 33 months that made this blaze Prescott's second worst disaster.


Here's the story of Arizona's Worst Natural Disaster:
The complete, heartbreaking story of the Walnut Grove Dam Disaster of 1890.

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"Mercy Hospital Blaze in 1940 Is Grim Reminder". Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: "Fires, 1940- present."

"Fire Destroys Hospital Unit At Prescott". Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Vertical File: "Fires, 1940- present."

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