Nursing Home Fire That Killed Nine Blamed on Careless Smoking
Oct. 07, 1989
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ A nursing home fire blamed on careless smoking filled the four-story building with thick smoke that killed nine elderly residents and sent nearly 100 to hospitals, officials said Friday.
The fire gutted the second-floor room where it began, but did little damage to the rest of the brick building. The home does not have a sprinkler system; none was required when it was built in 1969.
''Even though we lost nine people, the potential was there to lose significantly more than that,'' said Fire Chief Thomas E. Gardner.
The Thursday night blaze at the four-story Hillhaven Rehabilitation and Convalescent Center began when a resident, Major Leary, 78, accidentally tossed a match on his bed while smoking against regulations in his second floor-room, said Capt. Herbert Redfield, chief of fire investigations.
Leary died in the blaze but his roommate, Roy Miller, escaped without serious injury, said Fire Chief Thomas E. Gardner.
Residents of the 172-bed nursing home, some in bedclothes and some naked, were helped down halls and down ladders as firefighters tackled the fire. The blaze broke out at 10:20 p.m. as residents were going to bed.
Gardner said many residents stayed in their rooms with the doors closed while firefighters used a pressurized ventilation system called a smoke blaster to clear smoke from the building.
Resident Katie Gwaltney, 88, said she was told to stay in her fourth-floor room after she heard a fire alarm.
''They came and told us that everything was OK,'' she said from a wheelchair outside the home. ''I couldn't get out. I just lay so still.''
Ninety-eight of the nursing home's 163 residents were taken to hospitals for treatment of smoke inhalation, said Don Haupt, administrator of the city's Paramedial Rescue Service.
Seven remained hospitalized Friday, six in critical condition, said Rhonda S. Hoover, a spokeswoman for Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
The fire chief said the fire would have been less severe if the 20-year-old building had a sprinkler system. ''If it were sprinkled, then probably some of them would not have died,'' he said.
State codes in 1969 did not require sprinklers in nursing homes. Howard H. Summers Jr., the state's chief fire marshal, said any multi-story nursing home constructed today would have to include a sprinkler system but a single-story building could be built without one if it included fire-resistant construction materials.
Gardner said he would urge state lawmakers to require that buildings such as the nursing homes be retrofitted with sprinklers.
Hillhaven will consider installing sprinklers, but they are difficult to place in existing buildings, said Jeffrey M. McKain, a regional vice president for The Hillhaven Corp., a Tacoma, Wash.-based chain that owns the home.
McKain said smoking is prohibited in bedrooms. The home has smoke and heat detectors and fire resistant doors and ''it appeared most of those systems all functioned as they should,'' he said.
One of the injured residents, Elijah Williams, 85, said he heard no fire alarm in his second-floor room but knew something was wrong when he heard noise on the first floor.
''I went to the window and I saw that smoke,'' he said.
Williams said he was rescued by a firefighter who brought him down a ladder and left him outside the buiding.
''I didn't know what to do,'' Williams said from Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. ''I didn't have nothing on, nothing but my nightclothes.''
There were about 200 people in the building when the fire broke out, McKain said. He said damage was so minimal on the third and fourth floors that residents might return there in a few days. He had no damage estimate.
At least two residents went home with their families and the others were placed in hospitals and nursing homes, McKain said. Haupt said 141 people were transported to hospitals or nursing homes.
The nursing home passed two inspections this years, said Charles Ford, a Virginia Department of Health spokesman. In February, the fire marshal's office conducted an inspection for the health department as a followup to an inspection last Nov. 18 that found three minor violations of fire safety regulations, Ford said. All three problems had been corrected by the time of the February recheck, he said.