Ellisville, MS Ellisville State School Fire Kills 15, Dec 1978


Ellisville, Miss. (AP) -- A smouldering fire in a clothing room sent a blanket of smoke through a dormitory of a center for the mentally retarded early Saturday, killing 15 women patients and injuring 16 others, authorities said.
The victims -- all women 40 years and older and classified as moderately to severely retarded -- died of smoke inhalation in the fire at the Ellisville State School in this town 75 miles southeast of Jackson. The center served as both a school and hospital for 129 patients.
"Some of them were in their beds and others were on the floors," said Ellisville Fire Chief FRANK WILLIAMS. "They were trying to get out but they just didn't make it."
The fire broke out during the early morning in a room for storing clean clothing adjacent to two second-floor wards where 66 women patients were sleeping. The 63 men and women who occupied the ground floor escaped without injury.
The state fire marshal's office said it appeared the fire began in a closet in the room.
Hospital staff, firefighters and police officers dashed into the dense smoke to evacuate the patients.
"It was thick somke from the floor to the ceiling and it was superheated," said VAN CARTER, a dormitory supervisor. "They kept going back in and helping people out. Nobody panicked."
"The difficulty was we couldn't get into parts of the building because of the smoke," said a nurse who helped pull coughing patients from the building. "It was so thick. I'd get in a few feet and get dizzy and fall to my knees."
DR. PAUL COTTEN, the school's director, said most of the damage was confined to the clothing room, but that there was "a tremendous amount of smoke." The room held the electrical panel for the upper floor.
COTTEN said that there were no fire detection devices in the center and that it appeared the fire was unnoticed until one of three cottage parents assigned to the second floor smelled smoke. He said patients in the upper level, women either moderately or severely mentally retarded, were helped down stairs to safety.
"When it started, the power went off," said a hospital staff member who asked not to be identified. "They were fighting to get out (in the dark) .. It's bad enough when we have fire drills in the day."
Officials said 14 of the women apparently died either before or during the evacuation, and another died later at the center's infirmary.
The officials said 16 patients were treated in the infirmary and all were later admitted to Jones County Community Hospital. Three were being treated in the intensive care unit.

The Paris News Texas 1978-12-10