12/17/09 510 W, 2 I - + 9 - 6 Highland Hospital Fires

Firenews found this Citizen-Times story of a fire on the historic grounds of Highland Hospital in Asheville. Arriving units at the old hospice building Tuesday night found flames coming from the roof. The blaze was quickly extinguished with water cans, and contained to one corner of the roof. The building and the grounds were owned by Duke University until the 1980s, and presently serves as office and shopping space.

John Coutlakis/Citizen-Times Photo

Highland Hospital was named in 1912, having moved from a downtown location in 1909. The hospital was also the scene of a fatal fire that killed nine patients in 1948. That incident is one of three in the state's history that killed nine people, as happened in Charlotte (1940) and Maxton (1989). Only the Imperial Food Products fire in Hamlet (1991) has exceeded that number of fatalities, killing 25. Below is a quick summary of the 1948 fire in Asheville.

Courtesy University of North Carolina

On March 10, 1948 at 1:00 a.m., a fire alarm was received from the Highland Hospital campus on Zillicoa Street. Arriving units found the main hospital building heavily involved with fire. The four-story, wood-frame and stone structure was a sanatorium that treated patients with mental disorders. The windows were covered with bars, and the doors fortified with steel slabs. The arriving crews began both pulling lines, and attempting to rescue patients and staff.

Screams of the trapped women carried across the hospital grounds as doctors, nurses, firemen, and policemen ran through the burning building. Twenty people were rescued, but seven others were trapped on the upper floors and died. Two rescued patients also soon died. One of the victims was the wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Firefighters later recounted how they watched patients die in front of them, as they worked in vain to remove the bars from the windows.

The fire was discovered about midnight, having started in the kitchen of the hospital's main building. The blaze quickly spread to an elevator shaft, and was burning the building's roof when firefighter's arrived. Every available piece of apparatus was sent to the scene, and off-duty firefighters also rushed to the hospital. The blazing building illuminated a large section of the city. Spectators numbered about 1,000, milling about and many wearing pajamas.  

The estimated loss was $300,000. The fire was the third at the hospital in less than year. Two had started in April 1947, one burning a mattress and the other starting from oily rags under a stairwell

The inquest after the incident praised the firefighters for their actions, despite the area having water problems and the fire department receiving a late alarm. Had the fire alarm been immediately transmitted, no deaths would have likely occurred. What was the size of the Asheville Fire Department in 1948? The department had five stations with five engines, an aerial ladder, and a service ladder. Maybe a third ladder as well. Personnel numbered around 60.


A History of the Asheville Fire Department, Jim Causey, 1994.
Asheville Fire Department, 2005.
Florence Morning News, March 12, 1948, via web site.
The Robesonian, March 11, 1948, via web site.

Updated with corrected FireNews article link, http://firenews.net/index.php/news/news_..
Legeros - 12/18/09 - 07:31

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