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Nine Dead, 98 Injured in Nursing Home Blaze

October 6, 1989

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ A fire blamed on careless smoking struck a nursing home while patients were going to sleep, killing nine people and injuring nearly 100 as rescuers rushed dazed patients to safety through halls flooded with choking smoke.

The elderly evacuees, some in bedclothes and some naked when they were saved, were helped down halls and down ladders as firefighters tackled the Thursday night blaze in the 172-bed Hillhaven Rehabilitation and Convalescent Center.

Capt. Herbert Redfield, chief of the city’s fire investigation unit, said in a statement today that careless use of smoking materials was the cause of the fire, which broke out about 10:20 p.m. One of the victims, Major Leary, lived in the second-story room where the fire broke out, along with another man who survived, Redfield said.

As the fire at the four-story brick home was being put out early today, patients huddled on the lawns of nearby houses, attended by paramedics and neighbors.

The fire was mostly contained to the room where it began, but smoke spread throughout, and many of the injured suffered from smoke inhalation, said Norfolk Fire Chief Thomas E. Gardner.

″Even though we lost nine people, the potential was there to lose significantly more than that,″ Gardner said.

″I woke up in a roomful of smoke,″ said patient Robert Bell, 82. ″The whole room was saturated with smoke. You couldn’t see and you couldn’t hardly breathe.″

Gardner said the nursing home did not have any sprinklers, but said they were not required when the home was built in 1969. He said he hoped the fire would inspire lawmakers to require sprinklers.

″I personally advocate that you don’t build anything in the city that you don’t put sprinklers in,″ Gardner said today. ″I’m hoping this will cause the legislators to help make a modification to the building code that would require a sprinkler system in at least buildings of this occupancy class.″

He also said the rescue efforts were hampered by the fact that many patients ″were hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment.″

The nine residents - eight women and one man ranging in age from 65 to 97 - died of smoke inhalation, said Deborah Myers, a spokeswoman for Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

The 98 people taken to eight hospitals suffered smoke inhalation and minor burns, officials said. Twenty of people were admitted to Sentara Norfolk General, including six in critical condition, Ms. Myers said. The rest were treated and taken to other nursing facilities.

The fire was extinguished after midnight.

Second-floor resident Harriett Waddill, 76, described the confusion:

″Everything was quiet. We were going to bed. All of a sudden we heard this commotion in the hall. They were running up and down the hall and they were yelling, ‘Get him out of the room.’ It was getting so black I couldn’t even identify were my bed was.″

Katie Gwaltney, 88, said nursing home workers told her to stay in bed in her fourth-floor room after she heard the fire alarm.

″They came and told us that everything was OK,″ she said as family members comforted her in her wheelchair. ″I couldn’t get out. I just lay so still.″

Gardner said many residents stayed in their rooms with the doors closed while firefighters used a giant pressurized ventilation system called a smoke blaster to clear the smoke and pump fresh air into the building.

Officials said roughly 200 people, including about 160 residents, were in the building when the fire broke out.

Gardner said the state code requires sprinkers in buildings that are five stories or taller. The nursing home is four stories. He said officials have ruled out foul play and would release the cause of the fire late today.

Nursing home officials 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.

″It’s an extremely difficult system to retrofit,″ McKain said.

Jeff Crow, who lives across the street from the nursing home, said he was watching television when he noticed an orange glow in a second-floor room.

″I knew something was wrong when they started laying sheets out″ on the building’s lawn, he said. ″Then they started bringing bodies out. It was terrible.″

Crow comforted one elderly man who was brought down by a fire truck ladder.

″He was coherent,″ Crow said. ″He was a little awe-struck by it, talking about how the Lord took care of people.″

As another resident in a wheelchair waited to be rolled into a van, an attendant leaned over her shoulder.

″You’re all right,″ she said. ″You’re going to get some sleep soon.″

At Sentara Norfolk General, dozens of people waited in the lobby hours after the fire for information on their relatives in the nursing home.

Bob Crumpler, who drove 50 miles from his home in Ivor to check on his 88- year-old mother, Esther Crocker, said he had heard she was all right.

″We’d still like to know where she’s at because I know she’s scared,″ he said.

Myers identified the victims as Louise Leigh, 76; Dewey McDaniel, 92; Susie Foreman, 71; Eula Oslin, 79; Mary Harrell, 74; Mittie Tann, 79; Roberta L. Lightfoot, 97; Leary, 78; and Nemesio Tabor, 65. All but Leary are women, she said.

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