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Documentary Recalls '61 Hartford Hospital Fire

Susan Dunne

January 24, 2012

What Bob Maher remembers more than anything else was a woman screaming for help.

"I heard someone on the other side of the door, banging on the door. It was a woman. She was screaming for help. ... I went back into the smoke. ... I hollered for the woman to come inside. She was screaming. She said 'I can't. I don't know where to go. I can't see,' " Maher says.

The day he is remembering is Dec. 8. 1961. He was working as a male aide at Hartford Hospital on that terrible day, when a cigarette thrown into a garbage chute ignited garbage, causing the chute to explode and flames and smoke to spread throughout three floors of the hospital, concentrated especially on the ninth floor.

An account of that tragedy, "The Hartford Hospital Fire: Inferno On The 9th Floor," will be shown on Connecticut Public Television on Thursday and Sunday. It was produced and directed by Rebecca Stewart, a former FOX CT anchor, who works in the media relations department at Hartford Hospital.

"In the hospital world, what happened that day is very well-known," Stewart said. "But when you talk to people in Connecticut, unless they were there, they don't know about it."

The half-hour documentary interviews hospital employees and firefighters who were there -- head nurse Pat Rinaldi, intern David Crombie, nurse Eileen Gormley Santiglia, and firefighters Mike Garrahy and Frank Droney -- as well as current hospital president and CEO Jeffrey A. Flaks.

Gormley Santiglia still has vivid memories of her and a doctor finding a charred body, still living, in the halls.

"He and I pulled this woman into what would have been the linen closet. .. He said, just get me some morphine. ... He administered some morphine to this person and we just kind of covered her and made him or her comfortable. ... To this day, I am guessing it was a woman but I'm not sure."

Along with tales of tragedy, the documentary tells tales of heroism, too, especially by firefighter Dick Trejarian. The city firefighters discovered that day that their ladders didn't go any higher than the eighth floor. Trejarian jumped from the top of the ladder to a ninth-floor window and then pulled another firefighter in.

"If it wasn't for Dick, there would be a lot more people dead," Droney says on the show.

As it was, 16 people died: patients Nancy Coniglione, Jennie Dunn, C. Frederick Greenleaf, Gladys Kokaska, Ruth LaPenta, Diane Pape and Charles Siegel; visitors Laura Greenleaf, Henrietta Conover, Adelene Fainter, Theresa Mascaro and Angeline Siegel; and employees Grace Hatch, Norman Hedendstad, Sadie Ward and Marion Winget. The show is dedicated to them.

The show concludes with changes that were made to Hartford Hospital, and hospitals nationwide, as a result of the fire: exit doors on hallways greater than 30 feet; double doors replacing eight-foot fire doors; installation of automatic sprinklers; changing all finishes, wallpaper, paint and ceiling tiles to fire-retardant materials; and positively latching hinges on doors of all patient rooms.

"This is a Connecticut story, but it's not just Connecticut. It was bigger than Connecticut," Stewart said. "When you go to any hospital in the country, it's a little safer because of a horrible event that happened right here."

"THE HARTFORD HOSPITAL FIRE: INFERNO ON THE 9TH FLOOR" will be shown at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday on Connecticut Public Television. It will be shown again at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Details: www.cptv.org.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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