CITY IN RUINS
WHAT: Nursing home fire
WHEN: November 23, 1963 approx. 4:50am
WHERE: Norwalk, Ohio
CASUALTIES: 63 dead, over 25 injured
Largely forgotten due to the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy the previous day, The Golden Age Nursing Home fire is considered the second worse nursing home fire ( in the history of the country with 63 dead and over 25 injured.
The fire was caused by an electrical short in the upper attic around 5:00 a.m. and spread incredibly quickly. The nursing home, which had previously been home to a toy factory, went up in flames very rapidly. The telephone system failed when the fire broke out and the building did not have an alarm. A young man happened to notice the fire as he was passing by, and called the fire department.
Within minutes nearly all of the fire departments in the Norwalk area arrived shortly after 5:15am and by then it was too late. The flame, fueled by fierce winds, had already caused the tar-covered roof to boil and fall in to the building, preventing firefighters from getting to the unknown number of people still inside.
Breakfast was starting to be served when a man came to the front door to tell everyone that the nursing home was on fire. There was still time to get people out but some of the elderly denizens seemed to get confused by the news and didn’t move. According to news report at the time “many of the patients were real bad mental cases and could not comprehend their own danger.” By the time the fire was over 63 people would be pronounced dead.
However, it wasn’t just confusion that lead to the high death count. Glass blocks made a window escape impossible.Several of the seniors perished because they were restrained to their beds and no one had a chance to release them before the fire swept through the building.
24 seniors and 3 staff members were able to escape the rapidly moving flames. But when the fire was finally extinguished, firefighters were horrified at the sight. Twisted metal bed frames containing charred remains seem to be everywhere.
After a few days, more than 20 bodies remained unclaimed. Some had no family and some families never came to claim their parent or loved one. Rather than bury them all straight in to the ground, caskets were ordered, temporarily delaying the funerals for everyone due to a casket shortage.
On November 29th, 21 unclaimed people were buried in a mass, 60-foot grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in Norwalk. A 22nd body, of John Rook, a veteran of World War I was buried in a separate grave on the same day.
An event such as this usually dominates the headlines across the nation. The Golden Age Nursing Home fire was the deadliest fire in the United States in 5 years and would have horrified the country, but it was never the biggest story at the time and seemed to be an afterthought to the Kennedy assassination and the rush to charge Lee Harvey Oswald with the murder.
The fire did lead to sweeping changes in nursing home fire safety and treatment of seniors in these facilities.