By Andy Rieger
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The night watchman smelled smoke in the linen room of Oklahoma State Hospital Ward 14 at 3:45 a.m. on a spring Saturday morning in 1918. He quickly sounded the steam whistle at the hospital’s power plant to wake the sleeping patients. Nurses, ward watchmen, and other employees fought the fire with hand-held extinguishers and a one-hose stream.
Night-shift attendants bravely began trying to evacuate the men and boys from the ward and the sleeping room above them. Dr. D.W. Griffin was on the scene within minutes, organizing rescuers.
The south wind was blowing fire debris and quickly caught the dining room on fire. Flames caught Ward 13 and 16 on fire but all 88 patients were safely evacuated and the flames beaten back. In all, about 1,000 patients were housed in the sanitarium that spring.
Some of the patients were violent and the fire excited them even more, making the rescue more difficult. A few were confused and ran back into the buildings. Sitting on the grounds, the attendants wrapped the patients with blankets and took a head count: Thirty eight men and boys out of 48 patients in Ward 14 were dead, mostly smothered in their beds. It is believed to be the highest number of deaths in a single Oklahoma fire, just outdistancing the 36 killed in the Babbs Switch school fire on Christmas Eve in 1924.
The bodies were mostly unrecognizable. Undertakers I.M. Jackson and Meyer & Meyer removed the remains and prepared them for burial in coffins. Two bodies were identified. The Rev. and Mrs. L.H. Havill identified their son, Ona, and took custody of his remains for burial at nearby Independence Cemetery.
Other families came from throughout the state to try and identify their sons, husbands and brothers. In a large, unmarked grave, in the northeastern part of the I.O.O.F. cemetery in northeast Norman, 37 coffins were covered with dirt on a Sunday afternoon.
For nearly 100 years, the exact location of the grave was unknown. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Bailey and others became interested in marking the grave to remember the fire victims.
Bailey enlisted the help of hospital administrators and staff of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Scott Hammerstedt ran ground penetrating radar twice on the area where the mass grave was believed to be located. He’ll discuss his findings in a talk at the hospital cafeteria at 6 p.m. March 25.
“We found something,” he said. “But without excavation you never can be sure. We found an anomaly around that size. We are reasonably sure but you can never be 100 percent sure.”
The site was one identified by a previous cemetery manager.
Bailey, something of a student of local history, knew about the fire from department lore and researched it with the help of the hospital and others.
“We knew about it and I was just curious. We started looking for the gravesite,” he said.
The idea is to raise money privately to fund a monument to the victims, much like the monument in western Oklahoma to the Babbs Switch school fire victims.
“It just doesn’t seem right that there is not some kind of memorial to them,” Bailey said. “It would be good to remember them.”
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