Hudson, Mass. Nursing Home Fire Takes Nine Lives
TRAGEDY struck the town of Hudson, Mass., (population 8,500) on December 20, with the horror of an early morning fire in the St. Jude Nursing Home. Privately operated for aged and invalid patients, it was located on Church Street just outside the mercantile district and about a twominute run from fire headquarters.
The building involved was typical of many of these occupancies. Originally a large 10-room, single-family, frame dwelling, it had been converted for use as a nursing home in 1951. In 1955 a six-room addition was built onto the rear and at the time of the fire a major remodeling project was in progress, which included another addition to the rear east side. The work of remodeling was being done under the direction of a competent architect of long experience. In addition to the periodic inspections of the building inspector, Fire Chief Joseph L. Despres made a check of the premises at the end of each working day (including the day of the fire) to assure that no shavings or other waste building materials were left in the building.
The area involved by fire was the second-floor hallway which was in the process of being widened and had a considerable amount of plaster removed from the walls and ceiling, exposing tinder-dry wood lath and studding upon which the flames fed furiously. Thin panel doors leading from the hall to the bedrooms burned through, quickly allowing the smoke and heat to enter the rooms of the sleeping patients.
At the time of the fire there were 36 patients in the building, with 19 on the second floor, eight of whom were helpless bed patients. Three employees sleeping on the third floor were able to escape by a rear fire escape and assisted in caring for the evacuated patients. A nurse and an aide were on duty on the first floor.
The fire was detected by an automatic detection system which activated the master box on the outside of the building, simultaneously sounding the box number on the town’s coded air whistles and recording the number on tape at the fire station at 4:15 a.m.
The Hudson Fire Department personnel consists of a full-time chief, a full-time deputy, 10 permanent men and 25 call men. On duty at the time of the alarm was Deputy Chief William Purdy and two drivers who responded with a 75-foot aerial, a 1,000gpm engine and a 600-gpm engine. Chief Despres, responding from his home, arrived shortly after the apparatus and found the upper part of the building charged with smoke and patients screaming for help. He immediately directed all efforts toward ventilating and evacuating the building. Meanwhile an off-duty captain who had responded to the alarm, advanced a 1 1/2-inch line, equipped with a fog nozzle, up the stairs and knocked down the fire with about half a booster tank of water.
As the outside temperature was below freezing, it was necessary to provide immediate shelter for the patients. The most convenient location was the funeral home next door, from which they were transferred to hospitals and other nursing homes. Ironically, some were to return soon to the funeral home in death. Of the 36 patients evacuated, all were living except one. However, within the next 10 days, eight others succumbed from burns, shock or respiratory complications brought on by breathing the hot gases and smoke. The ages of the victims ranged from 69 to 93 years.
Following an extensive investigation by the state fire marshal’s office, it was determined that the fire was caused by defective wiring. The investigation revealed that the building contained four different types of wiring. Added to the original knob and tube-type installation were flexible metallic cable, nonmetallic cable and rigid conduit. It was also brought to light that in times past electricians had lost metal snakes between partitions, which during the course of time and because of vibration of the building, had chafed the insulation from some of the old wiring.
One of the first protective measures taken by the town selectmen, following the investigation and findings, was to appoint a wire inspector, there never having been any electrical inspection in the town before. Steps have also been taken towards the adoption of a building code. Although the town has had a building inspector for years and has required a permit for building, the inspector was powerless as there was no law defining methods and materials to be used. An ordinance is also being proposed that will make sprinklers mandatory in all nursing homes. However, the owner of the establishment involved has agreed to install a complete sprinkler system, whether required by law or not, before resumption of operation of the nursing home.