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A Deadly Fire That Changed How Hospitals Are Built

Fifty years ago it was still OK to smoke in hospitals.

And on Friday, Dec. 8, 1961, someone, nobody knows who, dumped smoldering cigarette ashes down a trash chute at Hartford Hospital, igniting a ferocious fire that killed 16 people.

The fire began at 2:38 p.m. Within minutes a ball of flame zoomed from the basement to the ninth floor, blowing out a rickety trash chute door and engulfing much of the floor in flame and smoke.

An investigation into the fire and how it spread led to changes in fire codes for hospitals across the country.

Automatic sprinklers are now ubiquitous. Because Hartford Hospital was made of brick they weren't required there before the blaze.

Interior surfaces have to be finished with materials that won't burn or make smoke. Ceiling tiles at Hartford Hospital were made from sugar-cane fiber, which burned readily after the tiles came unglued in the heat. Burning linoleum created dense, black smoke.

On Thursday, the 867-bed hospital that's still the largest in Connecticut's capital, marked the anniversary with a memorial service for the people who lost their lives and honored rescue workers who saved many others.

One of the attendees was Bob Maher, now 71, who was a young health aide, working what he called an "average day" transporting patients around the hospital. That afternoon he was sent to the ninth floor to take a patient out of bed and get her into a wheelchair, he tells Shots. But he never got that far. "I was met by a wall of black smoke that chased me down the hall," he recalls.

He pulled a fire door shut to keep the inferno from spreading from the south side of the floor. There was a scream from the other side of the door, and he cracked it open and yelled for the person to come through. A woman stood in the smoke. He tried to reach her. But a blast of heat from the fire hit him on the side of the face, and he had to pull the door shut.

He and Art Bouchard, another aide, worked until late in the evening moving patients. Of the 782 patients in the hospital that day, two-thirds of the survivors were discharged. The rest were moved to lower floors or transferred to neighboring hospitals.

Patricia Rinaldi, a nurse manager, had the day off. But she lived just across the street from the hospital and heard the fire engine sirens. She rushed to the scene and helped evacuate patients.

Afterward, she helped the fire marshal identify which patient had been in which room. "I remember everything being very black," she says. At the nurses' station, she tells Shots, "the telephone was just a mass of black plastic sitting on the desk."

Rinaldi, 74, retired in 1992, but she still volunteers at the hospital.

Hartford Hospital publicly shared the results of its investigation into the fire. And brought in fire experts when it was time to rebuild.

"What the hospital did was become transparent and encourage people to learn from the fire," says Michael Garrahy, Hartford Hospital fire marshal for the past 25 years. The investigation into the 1961 fire helped spur needed improvements in fire codes, he says, to reduce the risks. "A patient is typically incapable of self-preservation," says Garrahy. "We have to protect them from fire in place."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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