DISASTER: A Chance to Be a Hero

  • Share
  • Read Later

The patients in Belle-Vista Sanatorium, on the northwestern edge of Philadelphia, went to bed one night last week in their usual atmosphere of medieval gloom. For the most violent, bed was a hollowed-out slab of concrete and a pallet in a small barricaded ward or a private cubicle. Some were shackled to the concrete with straps and locks. The moderately violent slept on cots and were restrained with leather straps. The merely senile and harmlessly demented slept unfettered.

By 11 o'clock all of Belle-Vista's 91 patients had been put to bed and the 47-year-old private sanatorium lay dark and quiet. It was about then that Nurse Eileen Pemberton smelled smoke.

The Shackled. As she spread the alarm, choking black clouds cascaded through the halls and into the rooms of the sanatorium's northern wing, a two-story stone annex. Nurses and attendants plunged into the annex to unlock doors and get at the screaming, the laughing and the uncomprehending men & women penned inside. Firemen raised ladders and hacked heavy wire screens away from windows. George Lewis, a 51-year-old attendant, found the keys to one ward for the violently insane and led firemen to it. "Don't go in there until I go in first," he warned them. "They'll get excited." Lewis unlocked their straps one by one. "I took the gentle ones first to speed things up."

Some patients tore and scratched at their rescuers; others tried to run toward the heart of the fire; some simply stood still, rocking with laughter, until they were dragged to safety. But nine men patients were out of reach. They died of asphyxiation from the smoke. A tenth died later in a hospital. Five of the victims, their bodies bruised and torn by their terrified efforts to break free, were found strapped to iron posts in a single 15-by-30-ft. room.

The fire set off two investigations: one to find who started it, the other to investigate Belle-Vista's ideas of hospital care, for which it charged $40 to $60 a week per patient. The Pennsylvania Welfare Department reported that, repeatedly for 13 years, it had warned the sanatorium's owner, 48-year-old Roland L. Randal, to remove the shackles and other restraints. A township marshal said that two months ago he had discovered that the sanatorium had no fire-alarm system, no sprinkler system, and its fire extinguishers were empty.

The Guilty. Finding the cause of the fire did not take long. Among the rescued inmates was Nicholas A. Verna Jr., an antiaircraftman at Salerno beachhead, who had got combat decorations and a head wound in World War II and returned to civilian life with a case of pyromania. With nine cases of arson on his record, Verna had been confined to Belle-Vista by the Veterans Administration. Confronted by investigators, Verna confessed that he had wandered into the basement and set fire to a towel near a laundry chute. "I got a sick feeling and had to do something," he explained. He was, said investigators, a "hero arsonist," one who likes to get credit for sounding alarms and helping out at fires. After setting the fire, Verna energetically aided in the rescue, pausing twice to let firemen clear out his smoke-filled lungs with oxygen.