Gertrude Warnick rests in an unmarked grave at Clearwater Municipal Cemetery, between Exalee Cheshire Sirmons and a shade-dappled sidewalk. Weeds crawl across the spot where a headstone should sit.
Warnick worked as a nurse. She was 55. She grew up an orphan. She never married. She had no children. And since shortly after the nursing home fire that took her life in 1953, she’s mostly been forgotten, even after headlines around the country hailed her as a hero.
When David Barmore discovered Warnick’s story, he started sharing it in hopes that, almost 70 years after her death, she might get the recognition and dignity she deserved in the first place.
The history detectives
While digging through archives for a historic preservation project, Barmore found a story about a former resident who’d died in the Littlefield Nursing Home fire.
“And I thought, what’s that?”
He looked it up, “and when I did, I found the story about Gertrude.”
Barmore, an amateur preservationist and volunteer with the Dunedin History Museum, kept digging. He found that Warnick was born in 1896, grew up at St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to Florida with her sister, Susanna, in 1941. Eventually, Warnick found work at the Littlefield Nursing Home, where she also lived as part of the job.
There, on March 30, 1953, she died in a fire along with 32 others.
“A fierce, early morning fire, fanned by a strong breeze, today destroyed the Littlefield Nursing Home south of Largo, killing probably 32 persons. It was the worst tragedy in Pinellas County History,” photojournalist Bob Preston reported in a front-page story for the St. Petersburg Times.
Also reported that day:
A nurse who made repeated rescue trips into the blazing Littlefield Nursing Home perished when she made “one more trip” into the crumbling, smoke-filled building. A mystery heroine, Gertrude Warnick, 55, was one of two nurses on duty in the home. She was one of the first to arouse patients. Ned Moren, son-in-law of the nursing home operator, told how Miss Warnick made trip after trip, leading or carrying sometimes quiet, sometimes wildly fighting patients out. “She heard someone call inside,” Moren said, “and made one last trip. She disappeared in the smoke. We called to her when we couldn’t see her anymore and she answered once.” Moren, and others, said repeated calls to Miss Warnick brought no reply. The building was crumbling, and heat, so intense it blistered paint on buildings across the road, drove would-be rescuers back. A charred and smoldering body was 20 feet inside the front door in what was a corridor. The body was identified as that of Miss Warnick… Miss Warnick’s sister, Susy, said the nurse had come to St. Petersburg 12 years ago. “She did housework until about a year and a half ago when she went to Littlefield’s as a practical nurse. She had never been a nurse before. She was very cheerful and very patient. I last saw her about two weeks ago. She liked her work and said it was very hard. She used to talk about the patients and sympathize with them.”
The Tampa Tribune told a similar story that day.
A valiant nurse who disappeared in the fiery ruins of the Littlefield Nursing Home blaze was credited with giving her life in an attempt to retrieve immobile patients from this morning’s tragic fire that claimed 33 lives. Miss Gertrude Josephine Warnick, 55, pulled one inmate from the flaming frame building, then was seen returning to a section where arthritic patients were bedridden and helpless. The tall, dark haired woman never came out. “She was that kind of nurse,” commented Mrs. O.T. Dryden, night nurse at another rest home across from the Littlefield place.”
Barmore shared what he’d learned with the Dunedin History Museum’s executive director, Vinnie Luisi, and both men were bothered.
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“Here’s this heroine, she went in several times on her own to try to save the lives of others,” Luisi said, “and there was no one there to pay for her funeral or even a marker.”
Luisi’s niece is a nurse in upstate New York. He knows what she went through to get her education, and what she and other nurses have endured during the pandemic. He still worries about her.
Barmore connected with the orphan part of Warnick’s story. Growing up, his parents took in other kids who needed stability. He’s in touch with them still.
So the two started telling people the story of the nurse who gave her life saving others. And one of those people had just what they needed.
The photographer’s daughter
Bob Preston wasn’t one to talk about all the bad things he saw in World War II or his long career as a reporter and photojournalist. So his daughter, Patricia Mastry, learned about his work covering the Littlefield Nursing Home fire as she dug through boxes of his clips after his death.
When her husband, a musician, heard from a bandmate whose spouse was researching the nursing home fire, he said, “You need to talk to Patricia, her dad shot all those pictures.”
Mastry met with the two history detectives and gave them her copies of the original news clippings and photographs from the Times. It’s one of the many ways she’s still honoring her father and his work. Preston “had the greatest nose for news of anybody I knew around here,” said one former colleague in Preston’s epilogue.
The story, his daughter said, is that her dad was out reporting and, when he heard there was a fire, he headed to Largo.
“So he got there, and he was it.”
Preston provided pages of stories and photos on what happened that day, including the firsthand account from witnesses of the fire. That mattered for the history detectives once they learned what happened to Warnick after her death.
“An inquest must be held to determine the conditions that could have permitted a disaster such as the Littlefield Nursing Home fire,” declared an editorial in the Times on the day of the fire. “Then action must be taken by local and state officials to safeguard such homes for the aged that this tragedy may not be repeated.”
On March 30, Warnick was a hero. By April 11, the Tribune reported: “Gertrude Warnick, who has been described in reports of the fire as a nurse who rescued at least one patient before perishing, was awakened by Mrs. Littlefield but apparently died in her bed without leaving her room, Littlefield said. Her room was among the wards where the loss of life was the heaviest, according to a chart studied by jurors today. Littlefield hinted that Miss Warnick could have been under the influence of something that night and that could have been the reason she never left her bed.”
The jurors also investigated reports of a mysterious car outside the nursing home and hints that the fire could have been caused by arson. They looked into safety measures and lack of regulations. And they investigated just one death, meant to be representative of them all.
“In gathering information on Miss Warnick’s activities during the fire, jurors got testimony that directly contradicted reports gathered at the fire scene by newsmen,” the Times reported. “Miss Warnick, newsmen were told by witnesses and officials, rescued a patient, rushed back into the holocaust and was not seen or heard from again. Her body was found in the ruins.”
On April 28, the jury left behind questions about Warnick’s whereabouts and the shadow cast over her role by Mrs. Littlefield. They delivered this verdict:
“We, the jury, find that Gertrude Warnick and 32 other people came to death as result of a fire of yet undetermined origin…”
Barmore and Luisi hadn’t seen those stories until reporting for this story began, but they believe the eye witness testimony of Moren, the owner’s son-in-law, who was a trained snake handler, to be the most reliable. The morning of the fire, he described Warnick running in and out and people calling out to her.
“He really didn’t have any dog in the hunt or any reason to lie about it,” Barmore said. “There is no doubt in my mind.”
A headstone for Gertrude
Several months ago, Barmore visited Clearwater Municipal Cemetery to see where Warnick is buried. She’s at the back, in a nothing of a spot looking onto an alley. Next to her, in another unmarked grave, is one of the patients who died in the fire.
He’s still bothered, and he and Luisi are starting to get somewhere.
Luisi shared the story with the Pinellas County historical committee, which he’s a part of. He and Barmore are working with Michael Helmstetter, CEO of Clearwater’s Jolley Trolley, who is building a haunted Clearwater tour that opens this month. Helmstetter will put half of the proceeds from that tour toward Warnick’s headstone.
Warnick will also be honored next year by the Clearwater Historical Society’s annual exhibit on women’s history.
“She needs a headstone,” said Allison Dolan, the society’s president.
Barmore agrees. The nurse who gave her life saving her patients deserves more than to disappear under dirt and weeds.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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