Last known survivor reflects on deadly Effingham hospital fire


EFFINGHAM, Ill. (WAND) - 76 people died in the 1949 St. Anthony’s hospital fire, which changed fire code across the country. One survivor’s life was changed forever by the injuries she sustained escaping.

It's known as one of the deadliest hospital fires in American history.

"There were 76 people that died, and majority of them were women and children,” says Dr. Linda Ruholl a nurse historian for the Effingham county museum. “88 percent were either female or they were less than the age of 12."

Only one living survivor of the fire is known of today.

"There was a lot of people trying to get out of there and people trying to get in to get to their families,” says Anita Sidner a survivor of the fire. “It was something that Effingham or any other town was not prepared for."

Anita was in a room with two other women when she narrowly escaped.

"The three of us didn't know what to do but there was a lot of commotion down below us, so we decided to jump,” added Anita.

Anita jumped from the second floor, and while she was safe from the fire. The injuries she sustained affected her for the rest of her life.

"They x-rayed me, and I had a broken back,” said Anita “So, they sent me to St. Louis to Barnes where I stayed for at least six weeks."

Anita not only broke bones when she jumped for her life.

"It has taken me many years to console myself that if I could have done something different I would have,” added Anita.

Before the fire, Anita was admitted to the hospital to deliver her baby. But, escaping the fire resulted in the death of her unborn child.

"I always blamed myself. 'but it wasn't your fault you know that' I know but put yourself in my place wouldn't you have blamed yourself? I did,” added Anita.

While Anita's life was changed forever. It was a moment of enlightenment.

"It made me appreciate what I had, and what god had given me," said Anita.

The cause of the fire is still unknown, but at that point in history historians say the fire could have happened at any hospital across the state.

"After the fire needed the fire marshal and the governor decided that all of the hospitals in Illinois should be inspected,” Dr. Ruholl.  “Believe it or not 90 percent of them had risks that  were similar to what happened here. It just was in a way bad luck that this was the hospital where it happened, it could have happened in many places.”

Since the fire was so deadly it changed hospital fire code across the country, creating the Life Safety Code.

"The Life Safety Code is a set of standards for preventing fire from happening,” added Dr. Linda Ruholl.

“If unfortunately, a fire does happen the code helps manage them so that they don't have this huge loss of life."

The tragedy is one Anita thinks about almost every day.

"You just kind of think about it,” says Anita.  “I wonder what my little boy would look like and so forth and what he would be doing today. But I can't dwell on those things, I think I'll see him one day.”

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