THE CLEVELAND CLINIC FIRE OF 1929
On May 15, 1929, about 300 patients were inside of the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio when an explosion took place in the rooms where x-ray films were stored. The room and the surrounding corridors filled with flames, but worse, the x-ray films began to produce a deadly gas. The tragedy that occurred that day claimed more than 120 lives and remains one of the most terrifying medical disasters in American history – but one that is barely remembered by anyone outside of northern Ohio today.
The Cleveland Clinic around the time that it opened in 1921.
In his dedication speech at the opening of the Cleveland Clinic in 1921, Dr. George Washington Crile said that the purpose of the clinic was “to give assistance in solving the problems of the patient of today and through its investigations, its statistical records and laboratories to seek new light on aiding the problems of the patient of tomorrow.” It was a medical facility opened with a dream and a plan to provide the future of healthcare to the people of Northern Ohio. The clinic had been founded by four renowned Cleveland, Ohio, physicians. Three of the founders, George Washington Crile, Frank Bunts, and William Lower, were surgeons who had worked together in an army medical unit in France during World War I. When they returned to the United States, they decided to establish a group practice and invited an internist, John Phillips, to join in their endeavor. The concept of group practice in medicine was relatively new at the time. Only the Mayo Clinic and military units were known to follow this model. The founders established the clinic with the vision: “Better care of the sick, investigation of their problems, and further education of those who serve.”
The clinic saw rapid growth in its early years but suffered a major setback in 1929 that almost closed its doors permanently. On May 15, 1929, a fire started in the basement of the hospital caused by nitrocellulose X-ray film that spontaneously ignited. The fire claimed 123 lives, including that of one of the founders, Dr. Phillips.
Dozens of people had come to the clinic for healing, but found death instead.
On May 15, 1929, about three hundred patients were within the walls of the Cleveland Clinic, an institution that everyone in the city had reason to be proud of. Some of them lay on operating tables, others rested in beds and some sat nervously in waiting rooms, unsure of what diagnosis awaited them. At 11:30 a.m., a resounding explosion occurred in the basement where the clinic’s X-ray films were stored. The films immediately burst into flame. Several theories were later advanced to explain the initial explosion. A leaky steam pipe, authorities reasoned, overheated and caused the highly combustible X-ray films in the room to catch on fire. Others believed that a carelessly discarded cigarette or match caused the fire. No one was ever blamed – the impact lay in the tragedy itself.
The Cleveland Clinic at the time of the fire.
When the X-rays caught fire, they began to release deadly fumes. The poisonous yellow gas penetrated to the waiting room on the floor above and then swirled throughout the clinic. The hollow center of the building soon filled with gases as the intense heat from below sent the fumes upward. Before anyone had an opportunity to escape, a second blast blew out a skylight. Every corner of the clinic filled with a deadly bromide gas.
People were quickly overtaken by the gas. They ran for the windows, seeking oxygen, but few were able to reach them. They were enveloped in the fumes and collapsed. The fire in the basement burned up the air supply and combined with the choking gas, began to claim victims. The fumes poured in through ventilator shafts, up stairways, through halls, and then the fire found the woodwork in the stairways and began to devour it, climbing upwards into the building. Windows burst and passersby on the street in front of the clinic were also overcome by the fumes. Witnesses on the scene after the explosion said that they could hear terrified screams from blocks away.
The first explosion in the clinic was heard by police officer Henry Thorpe, who was walking two blocks away. He immediately turned in the alarm and ran towards the building, which was located at Euclid Avenue and 93rd Street. Thorpe was still a block away when he was blinded by the gas.
Firefighters arrived within minutes of the call. They turned in a second alarm and police, hospital and county morgue ambulances soon began to arrive. Meanwhile, firefighters were trying to enter the building. Battalion Fire Chief James P. Flynn, with his driver, Louis Hillenbrand, were the first to go inside. They found 16 bodies packed in the space between the elevator and a stairway, where occupants of the clinic had tried in vain to escape. One of the people found near the elevator was Dr. J.L. Locke. He was taken outside and revived. Five of the others, who were still breathing, were taken to the roof, where firefighters were hard at work.
Rescue workers and volunteers scaled the building, trying to help the people inside escape from the flames and from the deadly x-ray fumes.
Flynn directed his men to scale the roof and enter the hospital through a skylight. They lowered themselves from the roof, but it was not an easy entry. From the skylight, the firemen suspended themselves and then swung their bodies to gain momentum in order to drop with minimum injury inside the mezzanine rail that encircled the fourth floor. The firefighters then searched the trap door that allowed access to the roof. While searching for the door, they found a mass of bodies of people who had attempted to make it to the roof on their own. One of the firefighters was horrified by the sight:
“I hope to never have to look at anything so horrifying again. Lord help me, as far down the stairway as you could see were bodies, bodies, bodies. Twisted arms and legs, screaming men and women. Bodies and screams.”
The firemen managed to lift out 15 survivors from the top of the pile of bodies. The jam at this failed escape route was so great that many of those at the bottom of the pile were crushed to death. Oxygen tanks were rushed to the roof, but for many of the survivors, it was too late. They did not live for long. Battalion Chief Flynn lowered himself into the building and was appalled at the condition of the people his men found, most of them barely alive. He ordered the firemen to concentrate all of their efforts on saving the trapped and getting people out of the clinic. They could hear screaming coming from the third floor and crews went down the stairs. By now, the flames had reached the third floor and the men had to battle the fire while their comrades worked to revive those who had been overcome by the smoke and fumes.
Some of the firefighters described their efforts on the lower floors of the building as “a descent into Hell.” Many victims were found collapsed at the windows, unable to find fresh air. Both entrances to the street were blocked by tangles of panic-stricken patients and personnel. The doorways had simply not been wide enough for everyone to exit at the same time. Trapped, they were overcome by the fumes and then burned to death by the fire. The fire had done its damage to the clinic, too. The woodwork and masonry walls were charred and blackened by the heat.
Hardened plaster was blistered and peeled from the walls. Fumes that had filled a hollow compartment between the balcony roof and the roof of the building exploded and ripped apart the brick and mortar. The casings of the skylight above and buckled and warped under the force of the explosion and broken glass had rained down on the waiting room, three floors below. The suction of the explosion shattered glass doors reinforced with steel. Compression in the hollow center of the building packed air into the halls and staircases and when this force was released by the blast of air rushed back into the center of the building, smashing doors with the force of a battering ram.
Heavy fumes hung about the building for almost two hours after the blast. Rescuers were unable to stay inside for long intervals and frequently had to use the oxygen tanks that had been brought for the victims. All of them firemen continued to go back inside and look for survivors, though, risking their own lives.
The clinic’s front lawn was soon covered with the dead and dying. Any available vehicle in the area, including taxicabs and personal automobiles, was commandeered by the police to be used as a transport from the burned-out clinic to other Cleveland hospitals. It took almost three hours to lift the bodies, one by one, through the damaged skylight. One police officer, a war veteran, described the scene as worse than his experiences on the front lines. He personally carried out 25 bodies from the building.
The poison gas from the X-ray films did not claim all of its victims immediately. Some people walked out of the building healthy and even aided firefighters in their rescue work, only to collapse and die hours or days later. A professional football player, Ben Jones, helped with the rescue efforts at the scene, felt fine and considered himself fortunate when he returned home. He died 48 hours later from the gas that he inhaled. Several firemen were also hospitalized because of ill effects from the gas.
Other, personal tragedies, occurred. Dr. Carl Helwig, a doctor at another hospital, came to the scene to aid in the rescue effort and discovered that his wife was at the clinic that morning for a routine check-up. She died as he worked to save her. One of the clinic’s founders, Dr. George Crile, helped in the aid and rescue and later, visited fire victims at the city’s hospitals. His close colleague, Dr. John Phillips, another of the clinic’s founders, was in critical condition. Dr. Crile donated blood to save his friend, but Dr. Phillips died despite all of the efforts to save him.
The clinic, founded by these two men and dedicated to the welfare of its patients, was witness to 123 deaths on May 15.
What could have been the end of the clinic turned out to be only the beginning. The remaining founders responded to the tragedy with brave optimism and within days, they resumed operation of the clinic in the temporary quarters of an old school. The Cleveland Clinic was rebuilt and regained momentum to become nationally recognized as a leader in the fight against cardiovascular disease. In the decades since World War II, the clinic has grown to become internationally prominent and is currently the second-largest medical group practice in the world, after the Mayo Clinic.