Sixty years ago, on Feb. 17, 1957, a deadly fire broke out on a 2 1/2-story facility that used to be the Central Wesleyan College.
For just two years it had been known as the Warrenton Nursing Home, or the Katie Jane Memorial Home for the Aged, and 155 elderly people lived there.
That day had started off as a pleasant Sunday afternoon with relatives and friends visiting their loved ones. The Rev. Walter H. Schwane, a Lutheran minister, was holding the monthly church service. They were singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” just as a woman’s scream rang out.
The woman screaming was Charlotte Schowe. She was there to visit her uncles. She had discovered the fire in a linen closet and ran through the building warning, “Fire!”
It was 2:40 p.m. when the fire broke out. Police reported that the old brick building was engulfed in flames by 3:08 p.m.
By the time Schowe got back to rescue her uncles 10 minutes later, it was too late. They never made it out.
The Warrenton Fire Department arrived within minutes after the fire alarm was sounded but even then the blaze had gained too much headway.
Reports at the time said heavy smoke could be seen for miles.
Nurses and attendants led some of the residents to safety. Some residents jumped from the second story onto mattresses. Ladders were put up to the second story. A number of residents were carried down by fire department workers and attendants. Some residents were dragged from the home by their relatives.
They couldn’t reach everyone fast enough.
By the time is was over, the Katie Jane nursing home fire had killed 72.
While the exact cause of the fire went unknown, police later determined that the 50-year-old building itself contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
They also determined more lives could have been saved but there was no evacuation plan in place, no alarm and sprinkler system and no fire escape.
At the time, though, those safety measures were not required in nursing homes.
The bodies of 14 unidentified victims were placed in a common grave in the Warrenton Cemetery. Townspeople collected $200 for a monument that listed the names of those buried there plus four other presumed victims whose remains were not found. Within a few hours after the fire started, national radio and TV agencies, newspaper reporters and photographers arrived to cover the fire.
Because of the national attention it received, Missouri lawmakers went on to establish minimum safety standards for nursing homes in the state. Then Gov. James Blair signed legislation mandating safety standards for nursing homes a month after the fire.
The Katie Jane fire is considered one of the worst nursing home tragedies in the nation’s history.
Editor’s note: This story was provided by the Warren County Historical Society. The historical society is funded by donations and run by volunteers. The museum is located at 102 West Walton in Warrenton and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Friday and from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is hosting an exhibit and program about the Katie Jane fire at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23. Everyone is welcome to attend. For information, to RSVP for an event or to make a donation, call 636-456-3820 or email email@example.com.