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Brief, Intense Fire Kills Four Patients at Virginia Hospital

January 2, 1995

PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) _ Dr. Ashok Kumar awoke from a drugged sleep to a bitter taste of smoke, and screamed to be rescued from a swift hospital fire that killed four other patients.

``All I know is I woke up and I didn’t so much smell the smoke, I tasted it and felt it in my mouth,″ Kumar said Sunday from his hospital bed in the intensive care ward of the Southside Regional Medical Center.

The cardiologist, who had been hospitalized for pneumonia, was in stable condition after suffering smoke inhalation in the fire.

The fire Saturday night also injured four other people and forced the evacuation a portion of the busy hospital. The cause was unknown, but firefighters were investigating whether a patient was smoking in the room where the fire began.

The fire broke out about 9:10 p.m. in a female patient’s room two doors away from Kumar’s. That patient burned to death, and the other victims appeared to have died from smoke inhalation, said fire Capt. T.C. Hairston. All of the victims appeared to be elderly.

About 25 people were evacuated from the fourth floor and from the two floors above.

``The room where the fire started was totally gutted, down to the beams in the walls,″ Hairston said. Ten adjacent rooms were also damaged by smoke and water, the hospital said.

``I saw the smoke along the corners of the wall and it was coming into the room very fast,″ Kumar said. He stumbled through the smoke and heat and pushed the window open.

As hot pieces of the ceiling fell on his back, Kumar began to scream into the darkness.

A nurse outside recognized his voice and helped firefighters arriving at that moment guide a spotlight up to Kumar’s fourth-floor room. A few moments later a firefighter climbed two ladders, smashed the window and carried Kumar to safety.

Hospital officials identified the dead as Douglas Rawlings, Alma Bonner Dora Matthews and Bessie Johnston. Hospital officials would not release their ages or hometowns. It was not immediately known which of the patients killed was in the room where the fire began.

Besides Kumar, another patient also remained in the intensive care unit Sunday at Southside Regional Medical Center. That patient was in critical condition.

Two people hospitalized Saturday night at the Medical College of Virginia were in critical but stable condition Sunday, superintendent Katina Goodwin said.

Another patient was discharged Sunday morning after being hospitalized for smoke inhalation.

The fire-damaged ward was sealed off Sunday.

Update hourly