*Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2018.
With a death toll that grew to 15, the Feb. 13, 1957, fire that destroyed the Council Bluffs Convalescent Home has been termed the worst fire in the history of Council Bluffs.
“I never saw anything burn so fast in my life,” Then-Assistant Fire Chief Ralph Figgins said of the fire.
Though it was his day off, Figgins, who was told of the fire by his daughter, was the first firefighter to arrive at the burning convalescent home located at 501 Frank St.
“I got there before the first trucks,” he told The Nonpareil. “The fire had burned through the roof and flames were shooting up.”
The gutted convalescent home, built in 1886, contained 25 rooms. At one time it had been used as a sanitarium.
Mrs. Belle Gilmore took over the property in 1942, operating it as a nursing home. In 1949, she turned operations of the home over to her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Charles Gilmore, who co-managed the facility with her brother, Kenneth Patin.
At the time of the fire, it was reported that 30 patients, most of them elderly persons, were quartered on the first and second floors. Twenty patients, of whom only 13 were ambulatory, were on the first floor, and ten patients, five of them ambulatory, were on the second floor. The third-floor attic contained quarters for the ten attendants, one of whom was confined to her bed by illness at the time of the fire. The basement contained the heating system, storage, and the quarters of the manager and his family.
The search for victims was slow because the top two floors of the three-story building had fallen through to the basement. Most of the dead were found on the first floor. The east half of the second floor had collapsed, and the dead were found tangled in a mass of beds and debris.
An investigation was initiated to determine the cause of the fire and if there were any code violations. The Iowa Legislature also voted to establish an investigating committee to probe the fire. State Fire Marshal E.J. Herron said it appeared the fire started around a wall plug near the floor in the first-floor ward.
“It was quite badly burned behind the plaster where the plug was located. The fire ate its way upward from that area,” Herron said. “The fire raced like mad once it got started.”
The son of the owner of the property told fire inspectors extensive electrical work had been completed the previous summer. New wiring had been installed, but some of the old wiring was not removed. Herron said the plug where the fire started was part of the old wiring.
Council Bluffs Fire Chief Waldo Merrill said an automatic fire detection system had been installed, but it was not determined if it had operated when the fire broke out. The convalescent home was not equipped with a sprinkler system.
Herron, the state investigator, said there were indication of a delay of six to eight minutes from the time the fire was discovered to the time the fire department was notified — enough time for the fire to gain headway before firefighters arrived.