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Recalling a county's tragedy, 55 years later

Saturday marked the 55th anniversary of the deadliest fire in Pinellas County history — one that swept through a Largo nursing home, killing 33 infirm elderly people and one heroic nurse.

At 3:15 a.m. on March 29, 1953, fire broke out in the kitchen storage room of Littlefield Nursing Home, which was near what now is 110th Avenue N and

Ridge Road.

Quickly, the fire spread to the women's dormitory, then to quarters where male patients were sleeping.

Many of the 57 patients, ages 55 to 94, were feeble or senile and never left their beds as the flames raced through the facility.

Owner W.L. Littlefield and his wife tried at first to douse the fire, then worked to evacuate patients.

Nurse Gertrude Warnick, 55, carried one patient to safety, then went back into the inferno, but perished.

Twenty-five patients managed to escape, but 30 women and three men died. Several bodies were found with the charred remains of their beds. Littlefield and his wife survived, but he was treated for shock, she for heart problems.

The fire shocked the community. Reported in newspapers nationwide, it led to nursing home reforms statewide. Then-Gov. Dan McCarty extended state regulations to apply to private nursing homes.

The tragic fire continues to draw interest.

"We've gotten about 10 e-mail requests for information in the last month," said Charlie Harper of the Largo Historical Society. "Requests have come from all over — Oregon, Massachusetts, New York City. That's very unusual."

Firefighters and rescuers were hampered because the fire burned the facility's wiring, knocking out lights and telephone service. The home's rural location also presented problems. It was more than 2 miles outside Largo, in unincorporated Pinellas.

Firefighters from Clearwater and Largo had to keep traveling back to Largo to fill tankers with water.

"There were injuries to firemen and extreme heroism. Volunteers went into the burning building to pull people out," said Harper.

Some of the historical interest in the fire may be due to a famous victim. Arthur Fields, an American songwriter and performer best known for writing the lyrics to Aba Daba Honeymoon, was among those who died.

"I remember the fire," said Clearwater resident and local historian Bob Delack. "I was about 12 years old and there were two people we knew that died. One of them was our neighbor. My mother never got over that."

Recalling a county's tragedy, 55 years later 03/29/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 8:26am]
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