In 1929, the Cleveland Clinic was only 8 years old. Today, one of the best health systems in the country, but 83 years ago today was one of it's darkest.
The clinic (adjacent to the Cleveland Clinic Hospital) was damaged by a fire that reportedly occurred when x-ray film (in those days comprised of nitrocellulose) was stored too close to an incandescent light bulb. The heat from the light bulb igniting the x-ray film, it is believed, caused the fire. Burning this product led to an incredible release of a toxic gas. Two associated explosions occurred during the fire and as this highly toxic gas spread throughout the clinic, dozens died within minutes of inhaling the vapors. 123 died as a result of the fire and more specifically, the toxic fumes, a byproduct of the nitrocellulose burning.
A city policeman (Ernest Staab) was credited with saving 21 victims before also dying from exposure to the toxic fumes. Another death of note from this tragedy included Dr. John Phillips, one of the four physicians who founded the Cleveland Clinic.
Changes that followed the fire included the City of Cleveland issuing gas masks to firefighters (not SCBA in those days but a step closer to recognizing the need to provide respiratory protection for firefighters) "and a proposed city ambulance service".
National changes included some of the first efforts to regulate the storage and use of hazardous materials. Additionally, the x-ray film industry developed a "safety film" that within the next five years had generally supplanted the nitrocellulose in the world of radiology.
From an article on the Associated Press wire; May 16, 1929.
"The fumes were given off by fire of undetermined origin which destroyed X-ray films in the basement. Some pharmacists said it was bromine gas, while DR. WILLIAM E. LOWER, one of the founders of the clinic, said it resembled the deadly phosgene gas employed in the World war. It was ironic that the disaster occurred in the very place where the most advanced instruments and laboratories of science had been turned against pain and death. The clinic was owned principally by DR. GEORGE W. CRILE, nationally known physician, who was too occupied with relief work to comment of the catastrophe.A block away he was blinded by the gas. The first firemen to arrive turned in a second alarm and police, hospital and county morgue ambulances were concentrated about the building.
Battalion Fire Chief JAMES P. FLYNN, with his driver, LOUIS HILLENBRAND, were the first to enter the building. They reached the roof and chopped a hole leading to a stairway, then dropped a ladder to the fourth floor landing. Below they found sixteen bodies, one a doctor and another a nurse, strewn along the staircase.
The physician, DR. J. L. LOCKE, was taken out first and was revived. Five of the others were taken to the roof and carried down ladders as arriving firemen battered in windows to reach those inside.
Ambulances and taxicabs were used to take them to hospitals. DR. GEORGE W. CRILE, head of the clinic, gave orders that all victims be taken to the closest source of oxygen, their only hope of life."
Sources for the blog were found here:
Additional photos can be found here:
Note from the author:
There is a relentless ebb and flow regarding the debate of too much and too little "government regulation" that demands our attention on an ongoing basis. Each disaster compels us to visit and revisit rules and regulations to determine if they (those rules and regulations) are either current or applicable. In a free market economy (which I'll add is the best in the world) there are always balances that must be measured to assure businesses remain healthy and profitable and yet, employees and in this case, visitors and patients as well, are safe from dangers such as occurred in this situation. Each disaster cries out to say, don't let this happen again. Our best efforts are generally limited to the chances the "this" of the last disaster does not happen again. Nevertheless, while we are more likely to recognize the hazards and vulnerabilities of our last disaster and act accordingly, the hazard and vulnerability analysis process continues to be an evolving part art and part science of the disaster community.
As with this disaster, the body of science gave us safer clinics and hospitals. This led to new regulations as previously discussed. Not all disasters are foreseen and thus minimized or averted but when they do happen, and we learn from them, they are less likely to impact our lives in such a tragic way. Choosing not to learn from our past tragedies is the least expensive option for the moment but the cost over time can be and generally is enormous in terms of both lives and property.