Old engine serves as memorial to disaster

Friday, May 23, 2003

EFFINGHAM, Ill. -- The Effingham Fire Department owns a faded red time machine with ladders on the roof, flashing lights and a siren that wails all the way back to just before midnight on April 4, 1949.

That was the night fire exploded through St. Anthony Hospital. The 72-year-old building vanished in a wall of flame that killed 77 people and injured dozens more. Among the dead were a dozen newborn babies and the maternity nurse who chose to perish with them rather than save herself.

The time machine forever connected to that fateful night is a 1937 Central Fire Truck, now the preserved pride of the department. Its engine pumped water for 12 hours straight in the battle with the flames. Its steel ladders were used to pluck survivors from blazing windows. The conflagration mirrored in its once shiny crimson paint would prove one of the nation's worst hospital fires and leave first-degree burns on Effingham's collective soul.

Fire chief Nick Althoff joined the department more than 30 years ago, when the force still contained some firefighters who were veterans of the St. Anthony's disaster. But they didn't talk about it much. The good guys hadn't won that one, and it hurt to remember.

"I think they blamed themselves, so many people were lost," says Althoff, 55. "The department was pretty devastated. The people of their generation paid a price for that fire, it was etched in their minds."

But the firefighters had done their courageous best. And they were faced with a giant blaze tearing through a just-varnished, just-painted building with open stairwells that acted as giant flues. The St. Anthony fire would spark fire code changes at a national level that would make America's public buildings safer.

Today, there's no trace of the old hospital, which has been replaced by updated buildings bristling with sprinklers and electronic alarms. Only the fire truck endures, forever loaded with memories and trailing its history like smoke.

"We came to see the importance of this vehicle, what it represents," explains Gerry Niccum, 58, the assistant fire chief.

It wasn't an overnight decision. Incredibly, the truck -- known as the "Caladonia" -- was still in front line service until 1971. It was then sold to the Mason Fire Department for $1 and served there for 10 years before coming back to Effingham.

In the past five years, the Caladonia has had a mechanical overhaul and missing equipment has been replaced. A full body restoration might cost $17,000 and remains a dream, but the department is determined the truck will gleam again one day.

Even with its muted, chipped paint, the engine is the star of the show at parades and special events.

"Every time we take it out for a spin, the feeling is just overwhelming," says Lustig. "There's something about that truck, all that history, that just gets to you."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: