60th Anniversary of Deadly Huntington State Hospital Fire

By: The Associated Press Email
By: The Associated Press Email

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Today marks the 60th anniversary of a fire at the State Mental Hospital in Huntington that killed 14 women and children.

On November 26, 1952, about 7 p.m., fire broke out in the basement of the State Mental Hospital in Huntington. Just two hours later -- the city, and the state, was in shock. The kitchen of the facility was turned into a holding area, those dead and alive lying together on the floor wrapped only in blankets.

Originally, officials thought that 15 people had died in the blaze -- that number, after a thorough check, was dropped to 14. Five of the victims were young girls, 15 or younger. The others were women, the oldest was 89-years-old.

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

According to an Associated Press article, 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 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, according to the article.

The rescuers couldn't use stretchers on the narrow escapeway, according to the article, 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 most of the patients out of the building. According to the article, he said they tripped the latches on the ward doors so the patients could flee by themselves.

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, according to the article.

One fireman told the Associated Press 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 building was under scrutiny at this time of the tragedy due to its condition.

"I know it's too late to say this," President of the State Board of Control at the time, Joe F. 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 in 1952.

Burdett told the Associated Press that the requested appropriation was cut out somewhere along the line in the last legislative session.

Two other fires occurred at the state hospital within two years of the deadly blaze -- one in a third floor sewing room and the other in a basement storage bin, according to the article.

Two elderly women were also 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.

Below is a list of those who perished in the Huntington State Hospital fire:

  • 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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