74 years later, remembering the deadliest tragedy in the history of Quad Cities

A tragic incident occurred at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Davenport, Iowa, resulting in the devastating loss of 40 female patients and one nurse.

The Quad Cities witnessed its most tragic catastrophe, as it became the site of the deadliest disaster in its history. This devastating incident also ranks as the third largest hospital fire in the history of the United States.

No one had ever written about it until last month.

Dr. Bret Grimes, a Bettendorf author, sheds light on the intriguing history of the Genesis West Hospital site.

In the early morning hours of January 7, 1950, a patient at St. Elizabeth Hospital experienced a hallucination, leading her to believe that she had to escape from her locked room.

In 1950, buildings lacked sprinkler systems and fire prevention materials, making it difficult to contain fires once they started, especially when ignited by flammable curtains.

Roy Porter, who is now 99 years old, was a member of Davenport’s Second Alarmers Association. He holds the unique distinction of being the sole surviving witness with direct experience of the fire.

“I still see that building standing there burning every time I go home on Marquette Street or visit Mercy Hospital,” he said.

Porter vividly remembers the sights, sounds, and smell of that fateful morning.

Patients in mental institutions faced a heartbreaking challenge as they tried to seek refuge from the disaster. It was particularly devastating because their escape was hindered by the barred windows and doors, a prevailing practice in those institutions.

According to Grimes, the treatment of the mentally ill in the past was significantly different from what it is today. He emphasized that the standards for hospitals, healthcare systems, and buildings in general were much lower back then compared to the present.

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Grimes was captivated by history and felt compelled to write the book because he firmly believes that the events that unfolded on Marquette Street in Davenport, almost 75 years ago, deserve to be shared with the world.

“I want people to remember what happened at that facility when they hear the story or read the book. I hope it makes them pause and think about the history connected to that place,” he expressed.

Grimes aspires to ensure that this story continues to impart a valuable lesson to the residents of the Quad Cities.

He expressed the importance of treating people with kindness and respect, emphasizing the need to avoid condescension towards others. He also urged society to strive for improvement, believing that collective efforts can contribute to a better world.

After the fire, Porter became more engaged in the community. He took on the role of commissioner for the Scott Co. Sheriff’s Department for over 40 years, serving voluntarily.

The tragedy at St. Elizabeth Hospital has always remained etched in his memory throughout his life.

“I sincerely hope that the community keeps this in mind,” he expressed. “The occurrence of such a catastrophe was entirely avoidable, and I fervently wish that it is never repeated.”

Grimes’ book, “The St. Elizabeth Hospital Fire in Iowa,” is available for purchase on the website of Arcadia Publishing.

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