Filed Under Disasters

The Cleveland Clinic X-Ray Fire of 1929

Wednesday, May 15, 1929 was just another busy day at the Cleveland Clinic located on East 93rd and Euclid Avenue. A steamfitter had arrived early that morning to repair a leaky steam pipe in the sub-basement, which had been converted into a storage room for the hospital's x-ray film. This routine repair morphed into a national tragedy as the exposed steam came into contact with approximately 3-4 tons of volatile nitrate x-ray film.

Nitrocellulose film was developed by the Eastman Kodak Company during the late 1880s for use in both the field of medicine, as well as the motion picture industry. The Eastman Kodak Company's nitrate film developed a penchant for being highly volatile, unstable and extraordinarily flammable. If nitrate film ignites, it becomes extremely difficult to extinguish. Immersing burning film in water may not extinguish it, and could actually increase the amount of deadly gas emitted.

The steam acted as the primary catalyst, which caused the highly unstable nitrate film to decompose and emit a poisonous cloud of gas. The gas soon ignited creating two violent explosions, which rocked the clinic, practically blowing the roof off of the building. The explosions forced deadly fumes at a high rate of pressure into the pipe tunnel system and up the pipe ducts into nearly every room of every floor of the hospital almost immediately. The yellowish-brown smoke also found its way up the major stairways between each floor, thus trapping most of the 225 occupants of the hospital in an inescapable, terrifying cloud of imminent death. The toxic vapors caught most of the victims by surprise, as several doctors and nurses collapsed at their desks, while others only managed a step or two in their escape before kneeling over and dying. One hundred and twenty three victims almost instantaneously perished that day.

A few of the victims were miraculously able to escape the hospital, rescued by firemen, policemen or volunteers. Unfortunately, anyone who had inadvertently inhaled any quantity of the fumes succumbed to and died from the toxic vapor, some soon after and others not for several days. It had been reported by dozens of witnesses that the bodies of the first victims turned yellow and later green after being brought out of the building. This ghastly, macabre scene left an indelible legacy that forced officials to reexamine safety procedures.

The historic disaster that occurred at the Cleveland Clinic was unprecedented in its time and it captured the attention of people on a national, and even worldwide scale. Several of the investigating commissions that were charged with finding the cause of the fumes and fire made amendments to policy that would profoundly alter fire-fighting practices, hospital procedures and the methodology behind the proper use and storage of hazardous chemicals and materials in the United States and throughout the world.

Images

Cleveland Clinic Building on Fire One of the first pictures to be taken after the disaster occurred at the Cleveland Clinic on May 15, 1929 at 11:30 am is captured here. Ladders were erected all around the building in an attempt to rescue any victims that were able to survive the deadly fumes. A massive group of on-lookers blocked the area for five blocks in every direction. Source: Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Rescue Attempt in Progress Fire departments from Cleveland and surrounding areas dispatched all available fire trucks, equipment and personnel to combat the fire and deadly fumes. Several firemen stand atop the hospital assessing the damage, while others provide aid to the victims. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Aiding the Victims Witnesses to the clinic catastrophe observe as volunteers attempt to resuscitate one of the policeman who immediately fell ill as a result of the extremely poisonous fumes that consumed the entire hospital. Volunteers and any available medical personnel scrambled to administer oxygen to any survivors. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Assessing the Damage This investigator is examining several of the pipe ducts from the X-ray film storage room of the Cleveland Clinic. The disaster occurred as a result of the decomposition of dangerous nitrocellulose film located in the subbasement of the hospital, which had been converted from a coal bin to a storage room for the volatile, unstable X-ray film. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
The Ohio Inspection Bureau Investigates Fire These representatives from the Ohio Inspection Bureau were among those charged with investigating the cause of the X-ray fire that occurred in the film storage room in the subbasement of the Cleveland Clinic. The investigating team came up with three viable theories as to the cause of the fire, which were detailed in the report sent to the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Onlookers Pitch in to Help Administer Aid to Victims Many that arrived to watch the rescue effort take place pitched in to help administer aid. Bodies of the first victims of this tragic X-ray fire turned yellow shortly after being brought out of the hospital, and later turned green. This was said to be symptomatic of death from inhalation of nitrogen peroxide. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Damage to the Roof of the Cleveland Clinic The extensive fire damage to the roof of the original building of the Cleveland Clinic can be seen in this photo. As the deadly fumes passed through the pipe ducts and collected in the attic, they ignited, creating two massive explosions that blew off the 32 x 40 ft skylight. These blasts shot through the building with an intensity of heat, which even the masonry could not resist. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Damage Evident Throughout the Building The toxic, virulent gasses found an outlet into every room of the hospital as a result of the explosion, which forced the fumes into the pipe tunnel and up the pipe ducts. The plaster ceilings were utterly destroyed in the 4th floor rooms, and the fumes deposited a yellowish-brown color everywhere throughout the hospital. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
The X-Ray Film Storage Room Where the Fire Originated This photograph was taken by Dr. McLaurin, commissioner of the city trade wastes department. He was one of the first investigators allowed in the X-ray film storage room after the catastrophe that took so many innocent lives. The light bulb hanging precariously from the pipe duct in the image was theorized to be the primary source of decomposition to the nitrocellulose film. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.
Policeman Ernest Staab's Heroic Effort Perhaps the largest heroic effort was made by Policeman Ernest Staab, who was recorded as saving 21 lives during the tragedy that killed 123 people at the Cleveland Clinic. After seemingly recovering and returning to duty, he collapsed while working on his lawn. Near death, he was rushed to a hospital and placed under an oxygen tent as shown above. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Location

Metadata

Brad Clifton , “The Cleveland Clinic X-Ray Fire of 1929,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 26, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/573.