Hartford Hospital Fire, December 8, 1961

On December 8, 1961, a smoldering cigarette that was tossed into the hospital trash chute, ignite some combustibles and started a conflagration that exploded onto the 9th floor of the Hartford (CT) Hospital which ultimately took 16 lives.

There are multiple issues that contributed to the disaster, but the lack of positive latching hardware on patient room doors was the worst. At the time this hospital was constructed, roller latches (which do not positively latch the door) were permitted on corridor doors for the convenience of staff who enter the room. Many of the patients who died, were in rooms where the corridor door did not stay closed during the fire.

Click on the link below, and watch a 25 minute video developed by the Connecticut Public Television network to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster. After you watch this compelling video, come back to this page and read more comments that clarify some facts that the video touched on.

Although this is an excellent video on this tragedy, they did get a one issue incorrect. The video stated that the Hartford Hospital fire, which took 16 lives, was the worst loss of life in a US hospital fire to date. Unfortunately, that is not true. Here is a list of other hospital fires that preceded this one:

  • Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH, May 15, 1929  125 lives lost
  • St. Anthony’s Hospital, Effingham, IL, April 4, 1949  77 lives lost
  • St. Elizabeth’s Mercy Hospital, Davenport, IA, January 7, 1950  41 lives lost

The video mentioned that fire safety codes (what we call the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, today) was a voluntary standard and in 1961, it was not universally adopted as a requirement around the country.  The Health Care Finance Administration (HCFA) which was the fore-runner of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) was not signed into law until 1965 by President Johnson, so there was little oversight on fire safety in hospitals back then, than there is today.

As the video pointed out, this fire led to many changes on how hospitals are constructed and operated. The passing of many requirements that we comply with today, have their origins in this tragedy, such as:

  • Routine fire drills
  • Positive latching corridor doors
  • Elevator recall
  • Limitations on trash and linen chutes
  • Multiple exits from fire compartments
  • Limit dead-end corridors to 30 feet
  • Automatic sprinklers in new construction

The next time someone complains about a fire safety requirement in a healthcare setting, tell them about (or better yet, show them) this video and see if they still have that perception.

(Many thanks to my good friend Lori Greene of Ingersol Rand Security Technologies, who first brought this video to my attention on her blog: www.idighardware.com . Visit her blog for educational information on fire door hardware.)