New York City, NY Deadly Fire On Ward's Island Asylum, Feb 1923

View of Ward's Island



New York, Feb. 19 -- The ring of picks and shovels resounded early today on Ward's Island. The little jutting rock in the swirling waters of Hell Gate was slowly digging itself out of the tragedy that descended yesterday on its crazed inhabitants when fire swept a ward of the Manhattan State Hospital for the insane, killing 22 patients and three male attendants.
Nineteen bodies had been recovered before dusk and removed to the city morgue, but six more remained in the ice covered ruins. These, it was feared, had been cremated, and superintendent MARCUS H. HEYMAN expressed doubt whether more than charred bones ever will be recovered.
While the excavators were at their task investigators prepared to study the blaze, which was believed to have been started by a violent blast in Hell Gate which broke the insulation of electric wiring, causing a short circuit.
It was a weary staff that arose this morning after heroic work which saved the lives of 300 patients trapped in the wing of the great building that burned. DR. HEYMAN was at his desk long after midnight, preparing his official report and allaying the fears of anxious relatives.
Calm After Wild Night.
A curious hush prevaded the island during the night. The bedlam of cries and ravings which ordinarily might have been expected were entirely lacking. Only one of the 1,600 patients who remained in the giant building clipped off one wing by fire was in a "camisole," as a straight jacket is termed on the island.
Indeed the whole population of the state's asylum in the East River, presented a plegmatic calm after the day or sorrow, a day on which the insane acted most sanely. The one unit of the 75 on the island that was attacked by flames housed, the most violently insane -- men of homicidal tendencies, who might at any moment leap at the threatsof their rescuers.
But leap they did not. A few struggled as guards tried to push their way to safety through the smoke and flames, but not a single attack upon an attendant was reported.
"How do I explain it," said DR. HEYMAN. "Perhaps a subconscious feeling that something very unusual was happening and that it would be well for them to do as they were told. The insane soon come to rely absolutely on the guidance of their keepers."
"Personally I encountered one instance of resistance. I came upon a big, strapping fellow wandering about the grounds in light clothing. He threw off a hand I laid on his shoulder. "Take your hand off me, you have filled me full of electricity already," he said to me. I jolted him along until a burly guard came along and hustled him out."
"Meanwhile the state architect with a force of men was aiding in probing the debris of the burned wing while C. FLOYD HAVILAND, chairman of the state hospital commission was making a further examination of the ruins before submitting his report to Governor SMITH."
Investigators Begin.
The possibility that the district attorney's office might launch a fifth investigation also loomed. The sixth investigation in sight was being directed by the hospitals board of directors who met twice yesterday and has set another meeting for Wednesday.
A seventh investigation concluded last night by city detectives, resulted in a report to Detective Captain CAREY, that the fire in all probability had been caused by a short circuit resulting from the breaking of insulation. The detectives thought the break was caused by the Hell Gate blasting.
DR. HAVILLAND supported MR. HEYMAN in his statement that the building was greatly overcrowded. For this reason 176 patients were transferred to state institutions since January, but this only partly relieved the congestion.
A funeral barge moved down the East River shortly before midnight carrying to the Bellevue morgue, the 19 bodies that had been recovered. In only five cases was identification possible so thoroughly had the flames done their work. The bodies however, will be held at the morgue for possible identification later. JAMES R. HINNES, one of the victims was a veteran of the World War. His wife said he had returned from France with his mind greatly impaired.
MRS. HINNES said that her husband had escaped from the institution two weeks ago by hiding in a boat. Arriving at his father's house, he obtained fresh clothing and then had visited his wife and six year old daughters for two hours, before guards came for him.
Several other World War veterans perished in the flames.
That a fire many times as disastrous as that of yesterday may at any moment break out on the madman's island, was the warning sounded today by superintendent HEYMAN.
Was Only A Fire Trap.
Ward's Island is dotted with approximately 75 separate structures, 50 used to house patients. Of the entire number but two are fire proof, according to DR. HEYMAN, who asserts he has vainly implored the legislature for additional funds with which to protect his charges from fire. Yesterday's blaze destroyed but a part of a great building which, overcrowded as it is, sometimes shelters 2,200. The building is 50 years old and DR. HEYMAN quoted the state architect as expressing, after an examination yesterday, surprise that the whole structure had not been razed, as it was dry as tinder.
The island's fire fighting force is wholly inadequate, according to DR. HEYMAN. It has enough apparatus for an ordinary small town of 3,000 which with doctors and nurses is approximately the population of the island. But the trained personnel is lacking says DR. HEYMAN, who adds that he repeatedly asked for a chief and ten paid firemen, but got only the chief.
When a blaze breaks out attendants drop their work to fight the flames.
DR. HEYMAN said he had many requests now before the legislature for appropriations to protect the island against fire. His efforts, he said, began in 1917 when he bacame superintendent and made a survey of the institution's need.
Among requests now pending are one for $18,000 for further equipping the firehouse, and $15,000 for extending high pressure water mains as only one of these serves the institutions, and one for ten special attendants to serve as fire departments members.

Evening Tribune-Times Hornell New York 1923-02-19