Today, assisted living facilities have strict fire protection code. Occupants need to be able to stay in place in the event of a fire. Residents may be bedridden, have physical impairments, or have cognitive issues that can affect their ability to evacuate in the event of a fire. However, in 1953, that was not the case. It wasn't until 2002 that government agencies began taking a closer look at the fire protection needs of assisted living facilities, following several deadly senior living fires. In 1953, when the Littlefield Nursing Home burned, fire codes were barely existent - and the results show below.
On Sunday, March 29, 1953, the nursing home residents at the little A-frame home known as Littlefield Nursing Home had no idea what was ahead of them. Patients ranged from 55 to 94 years old with 57 patients in total – twenty-five lived to see the next day. They were asleep at 3:15 am when smoke crept into the women’s dormitory, accompanied by flames, only to move swiftly to the men’s quarters.
The owners of the property lived there and awoke to smoke and fire. They doused the flames with a fire extinguisher, only to find it made no impact. The husband and wife team pivoted and started evacuating residents.
They tried to call the fire department, but the wiring in the home had already burned through. There were no lights and no phone service. When firefighters were alerted, they were faced with many difficulties. The home was in an unincorporated area of Pinellas County, Florida. There was no water supply and the nearest city was two miles away. The fire department brought in tankers filled with water, fighting through the black halls to try and fight the fire. They kept running out of water, and having to travel two miles back to the city to fill back up.
Another issue was the evacuation. Many of the residents had dementia or were bedridden. Instead of evacuating, they resisted and stayed put in their beds. Many residents were found lifeless, burnt to their beds.
"There were injuries to firemen and extreme heroism. Volunteers went into the building to pull people out," said Charlie Harper of the Largo Historical Society. It was the biggest fire in the history of Pinellas County. One hero was Nurse Gertrude. She carried a patient out of the residence and went back in for more. She never came out, becoming trapped by the flames, she became a victim of the Littlefield fire.
By the time the fire was extinguished, 32 people had died in the fire. Most of them women. Another man was killed in an automobile accident trying to bring a victim to the hospital.
A cause was never found, despite it going to court. There are theories, however. Sheriff Sid Saunders believes the fire ignited from a freezer motor in the supply room from defective wiring. The owner, W.L. Littlefield rationalized that the fire started in a front bedroom, likely from a resident. Littlefield's son in law asserts that a resident snuck matches into the facility. Despite these theories, a true conclusion was never found.
The fire did result in fire protection reform. Then-Governor Dan McCarty extended state fire protection regulations to private assisted living facilities and nursing homes, bringing a semblance of purpose to this tragic event.