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Brief, Intense Fire Kills Four Patients at Virginia Hospital

January 2, 1995

PETERSBURG, Va. (AP) _ With hot debris falling onto his back, and the smell of smoke in his nostrils, Dr. Ashok Kumar screamed for rescue from a swift, smoky hospital fire that killed four other patients.

``I saw the smoke along the corners of the wall and it was coming into the room very fast,″ said Kumar, who had awakened from a drugged sleep at the Southside Regional Medical Center.

He said he was moments away from passing out when he was rescued.

``I had my head out the window and I was yelling that I couldn’t hang on very much longer.″ Firefighters scaled two ladders to rescue him from a fourth-floor window.

The New Year’s Eve fire forced the partial evacuation of the hospital and injured five people, including three firefighters. It began in the room of a female patient two doors from Kumar, who had been hospitalized for pneumonia.

Kumar, 41, was in stable condition Sunday. Another fire victim was in critical condition.

The cause of the fire was unknown, but firefighters were investigating whether a patient was smoking in the room where the fire started. Its speed and intensity indicate it may have been fueled by an oxygen tube in the room, Fire Capt. T.C. Hairston said.

The woman apparently died of burns and the other three succumbed to smoke inhalation, Hairston said.

Hospital officials identified the dead as Douglas Rawlings, Alma Bonner, Dora Matthews and Bessie Johnston, but would not release their ages or hometowns. Douglas Rawlings Jr. said his father, 89, lived in nearby Colonial Heights.

About 25 people were evacuated from the fourth and fifth floors of the six-story building. Most were uninjured and were taken to the cafeteria, hospital spokeswoman Terry Tysinger said. Several were treated for smoke inhalation or minor injuries at the hospital or at two neighboring hospitals, she said.

The fire-damaged ward was sealed off Sunday. Outside the hospital, scorched brick surrounded the twisted metal window frame of the room where the fire started.

``It was a mess, people running around and yelling,″ said Officer Marc Stefaniak, the first official on the scene. He raced up the stairs and grabbed an oxygen tank.

Once safely on the ground, Kumar looked up to see doctors called to the hospital from holiday parties racing around in tuxedos. He was one of six people rescued through the windows.

``It is a new year and a new life,″ Kumar said. ``I am very lucky to be alive in 1995.″

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