Patient dies after spark ignites fire at Durham hospital unit

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comNovember 7, 2012 

RALEIGH

— One person died, three people were injured and more than 40 patients were evacuated when fire broke out early Tuesday at a long-term care facility in Durham Regional Hospital.

State investigators say it appears that a spark or possibly an explosion caused a fire in a patient’s room where medical staffers were performing a defibrillation procedure on a patient. The room is on the sixth floor of Durham Regional where a company called Select Specialty Hospitals cares for critically ill patients in a 30-bed, separately licensed, long-term care facility.

Jim Jones, a spokesman with the state Department of Health and Human Services, said investigators are working to recreate the events that led to the fire and are looking at the possibility that it was related to the use of the defibrillator, a device that sends electric shocks to the heart.

“The investigators will be talking with people who were in the vicinity when it happened,” he said. “They will be trying to develop a timeline to piece it all together.”

A Select Specialty Hospitals employee called 911 at 2:19 a.m. Tuesday to report the fire. The employee told an emergency dispatcher that there was a fire and oxygen explosion in a room where a medical procedure had been taking place.

“We have a patient in that room and other patients around. The whole floor is filled with smoke, and it’s overwhelming,” the unidentified staff member told the dispatcher on a 911 recording made public Tuesday. “We are trying to evacuate every patient, but we have a patient in the room right now. We haven’t been able to get them out yet.”

The sixth floor sprinkler system and staff members quickly extinguished the flames before firefighters arrived, said Kellie Peacock, a Durham Regional spokeswoman.

Other workers on the sixth floor managed to move 22 seriously ill patients to safety. Another 20 patients were moved to other rooms at the hospital because of water damage caused by flooding from the sprinkler systems, said Mary Kate Llamas, a Durham Regional spokeswoman.

Two Select Specialty employees and one employee of Duke, which owns Durham Regional Hospital, were evaluated for smoke inhalation and sent to the emergency room. They were treated and released.

Officials have not released any information about the patient that died, including a name. Durham Regional Hospital officials described the patient as “critically ill” before the fire and said the cause of death will be determined by a medical examiner.

Duke University police are handling the investigation, with help from Durham police and the construction section of the state Division of Health Service Regulation. State officials will conduct interviews and review the facility’s medical and maintenance records, said spokesman Jones.

“What caused the spark? That’s the big question,” he said. “We hope to nail this down later this month.”

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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