Friday, Feb. 17, will mark a macabre milestone for the fire service and residents of Franklin and Warren counties.
Sixty years ago, in 1957, 72 people died in a fire at the Katie Jane Memorial Home for the Aged in Warrenton.
The fire, which started in a linen closet on a Sunday afternoon, quickly spread throughout both floors of the building and within 30 minutes there was no hope for those still trapped inside as onlookers made attempts to rescue the elderly residents.
Eyewitnesses at the time said the flames from the blaze could be seen from Washington and beyond.
Roughly 10 years after that day, a young Bill Halmich, whose grandmother died in that blaze, joined the Washington Fire Department.
Fifty years later, now Chief Halmich says he is making yet another push for fire sprinklers placed in residential structures to ensure nothing like the nursing home fire ever occurs again.
“I vehemently support residential sprinklers,” Halmich said. “It’s time for the fire service in general to get this information out. If there had been sprinklers in that nursing home, there would have been no loss of life.”
Halmich said he understands the primary argument against sprinklers in homes is the cost, and home-builders and contractors use this as their arguments to squelch any statewide legislation to mandate the sprinklers be placed in residential structures.
Halmich doesn’t agree and has advocated for years even though the construction costs may be higher, the costs in the long run will be lower overall, and with the inclusion of so many “creature comforts” in homes today, why not do something that could save your life and possessions.
“We have more sprinklered lawns in Washington than we do homes,” Halmich said. “Sprinklers are more important than marble countertops.”
But don’t just take his word for it.
According to a study done by the National Fire Protection Association, residential sprinklers lowered death rates by 82 percent and overall property damage from fires by 68 percent.
Halmich said he hopes to see sprinklers added into the city building codes in all new multifamily construction to start and then phase sprinklers into single -family homes based on square footage.
“Let’s look at the costs,” Halmich said. “Fire stations are expensive, fire trucks are expensive and firefighters are expensive. In some cities, if the response time is more than 4 1/2 minutes, you are required to have residential sprinklers. It’s still cheaper than building more stations and filling them with equipment and staff.”
In recent years, Missouri lawmakers have passed legislation against requiring sprinklers in nursing homes and other multiperson dwellings.
When these anti-sprinkler bills then went to the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon, he contacted Halmich telling him he planned to veto the bill and needed information to back up the veto and make it override proof.
Halmich said he did a lot of research at the governor’s request and what ended up being the crown jewel of indisputable evidence were the old news articles from the Katie Jane Nursing Home fire.
“The people in nursing homes should be spending their last days in peace and serenity,” Halmich said. “They need to be protected.”
Katie Jane Fire
To this day, the Katie Jane Nursing Home fire is still the worst nursing home fire in the nation’s history.
According to reports in The Missourian from Feb. 21, 1957, all 72 of the victims of the fire were identified.
Although investigators were on the scene while the ruins were still smoldering, they were never able to determine what caused the fire.
The best guess they could muster was it started in a first-floor linen closet in the rear of the building.
The week after the fire, 14 of the 72 victims, whose bodies were not claimed by relatives, were buried in a common grave in the Warrenton Cemetery.
A photo caption from the Feb. 28, 1957 issue of The Missourian reads: “All of the churches in Warrenton took part in the service, while relatives, townspeople and schoolchildren stood around the common grave in the rain, heads bowed in sorrow.”