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After West Chester fire, remembering a deadly nursing home inferno and its aftermath

One day after firefighters continued to dump water on the burned-out wreckage of a West Chester nursing home, retired firefighters Don Wood and Charles DeNicola recalled another inferno at a residence for the elderly - and its deadly result.

A scene from the 1973 fatal fire at the Caley Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Wayne, Pa., showing AT&T workers assisting with rescues.
A scene from the 1973 fatal fire at the Caley Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Wayne, Pa., showing AT&T workers assisting with rescues.Read moreDon Wood

Don Wood had been fire chief in Wayne for only eight months. The largest blaze he had handled was a pile of logs.

Then the call came in at 8:57 a.m. — 44 years ago. The Caley Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center was on fire.

By the time firefighters put out the blaze at 30 West Ave., nine residents were dead and 27 injured. Seven others would later die of complications from their injuries.

The Dec. 4, 1973 blaze, one of at least four deadly fires at nursing homes in the area between 1972 and 1974, would help spur an overhaul of state inspections and regulation compliance.

On Saturday, one day after officials continued to dump water on the burned-out wreckage of a West Chester nursing home, Wood and retired firefighter Charles DeNicola recalled the Wayne inferno and its deadly result.

DeNicola remembers a sunny day off from his job as a postal worker. He had stopped by the Radnor Fire Company, where he was a volunteer. Wood, a physics teacher, was in class at Radnor High School.

At the sound of the alarm, Wood raced out of a classroom to the nursing home. DeNicola and two fellow firefighters hopped on a three-man truck and zoomed down North Wayne Avenue to the complex, only blocks away.

The two men say officials of the complex – a renovated stone mansion built in the late 1800s and flanked by two newer wings –  had frequently called the fire department because of alarm problems.

DeNicola traveled the familiar route and arrived within minutes.

"When I looked up, it looked like a giant black hand of smoke coming over the building," said DeNicola, now 81, of Radnor.

Wood, now 80, had seen the billows as he drove along King of Prussia Road.

About 100 area firefighters battled the blaze. DeNicola climbed up into a second-floor window, knocking his helmet off in the process. The thick, black smoke that went down to the floor made it impossible to see. Inside, about 30 firefighters continued to go from room to room, taking soot-covered patients to the windows and handing them off to those on the outside who carried the residents down ladders.

Neighbors and workers at nearby businesses helped out. AT&T employees working in the area propped their ladders up against the building to help rescue residents. Authorities used Radnor School District buses to transport patients to area hospitals.

"I was carrying one woman who had her hand around my neck," AT&T worker George Whitton told The Inquirer after the fire. "She kept murmuring, 'My God. My God.' "

Another woman shoved her way through a crowd of spectators saying, "Where's my mother? Somebody told me she was dead. Oh my God."

The fire was under control after about 60 minutes. Officials said it started in a second-floor lounge. The cause was ruled accidental. Wood said it was undetermined. Facility owner Dale Reese, then a partner in an Upper Darby mortgage company, was exonerated of any criminal liability.

But more than a year earlier, the building had been cited for 13 safety violations that had not been corrected by the time the facility caught fire. Caley needed an automatic sprinkler system, fire alarms, widened aisles, and corridors. The nursing home also had not installed fire doors between the lounge and the second-floor patient wing, Wood said.

The deficiencies were found during an inspection by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Occupational and Industrial Safety, but state officials didn't notify the facility about the violations until six months before the fire because of a backlog of paperwork.

State officials blamed the backlog on the 1971 revision of the Life and Safety Code, which required that 1,400 nursing facilities be inspected.

With just six months until the deadline to bring the building up to code, the nursing home's administrator explained to state officials that she had asked for an extension. But officials said they found no record of the request.

After the fire, state officials stepped up their inspection program. In October 1974, the U.S. Justice Department sued the state for failing to enforce the regulations at 147 skilled-care nursing homes.

About 55 nursing homes closed for not meeting state standards. And 100 more would probably not be able to comply with the federal Life and Safety Code regulations, Dr. Leonard Bachman, state health services director, said nearly a year after the nursing home fire.

"I think we could have a catastrophe tomorrow," Bachman said at a news conference in October 1974, "but the chances are less now than they were a year ago."