Author(s): Mary Elizabeth Woodruff. Published on January 3, 2017.

Hospital Horror

The Hartford Hospital fire of 1961—Hartford, Connecticut


In the afternoon of December 8, 1961, a fire broke out in a trash chute in the basement of the Hartford Hospital, possibly from a lit cigarette thrown down the chute. The smoldering fire caused gases to collect in an upper portion of the chute; a spark or ember ignited the trapped gasses, causing the trash chute door on the eighth floor to blow open. Fire exploded from the trash chute door on the ninth floor, blowing the chute’s door off and igniting cane-fiber ceiling tiles in the hallway. Burning tiles dropped to the floor, igniting the wainscoting and causing fire and heavy smoke to quickly move through the halls of the ninth floor.

Hospital staff and arriving firefighters began closing fire doors and the doors to patient rooms. Whether patient room doors remained closed or not determined who lived and who died in the Hartford Hospital fire; survivors were found only in rooms where the doors remained closed throughout the fire. Some survivors said that the pressure from the fire outside was enough to cause the rolling door latches on room doors to release, and that the doors had to be held or braced to remain closed. Firefighters brought the fire under control in a matter of minutes, but the blaze still managed to kill 16 people.

Within days, changes were underway to improve hospital fire safety. Connecticut limited smoking in hospitals and banned combustible building materials. The use of trash and laundry chutes was banned as well, unless they were constructed with a “charging” room that separated chutes from main corridors with fire-safe construction. Over the next few years, improvements to the Hartford Hospital included sprinklering corridors, stairwells, and patient rooms, and rolling door latches were replaced with latches that held doors more securely—the types of changes that were vital to improving hospital safety throughout the country.

MARY ELIZABETH WOODRUFF is the manager of Library and Informational Resources at NFPA. Top Photograph: The Hamilton Archives, Hartford Hospital