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.