A demolition crew worked in the dark to start knocking down the former Pungo District Hospital in Belhaven after a judge’s order cleared the way for the historic building’s destruction Wednesday, dashing the hopes of a group that had labored to reopen the facility to provide emergency medical care for rural residents.
“We are devastated,” said Geeta Kapur, a Durham attorney for a group led by Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal that has fought to acquire the building and reopen it. “But our fight for justice for the poor in Eastern North Carolina will continue.”
The hospital was built in the 1940s using local and federal funds. It struggled financially in later years, and the non-profit group that oversaw its operations asked Vidant Health to take it over in 2011. Vidant, the largest healthcare provider in Eastern North Carolina, closed the hospital in 2014.
The company operates a 24-hour clinic in Belhaven, but does not receive ambulances there. Patients in need of critical care must go to hospitals in Beaufort, Greenville or on the Outer Banks. That has left some residents of the rural county an hour’s drive from the nearest emergency room.
In its most recent legal action over the closure, the pro-hospital group had received a temporary restraining order to halt demolition of the building. The group had asked for a preliminary injunction, which would have given more permanent protection to the building while the group tried to acquire it from Pantego Creek LLC, the non-profit that holds it. On Wednesday afternoon, a judge in Raleigh denied the pro-hospital group’s request for an injunction, Kapur said, effectively dissolving the temporary restraining order and clearing the way for demolition.
A woman who answered the phone at the Belhaven Police Department Wednesday evening said the work began sometime after 5 p.m. The Washington Daily News reported on its website that the work stopped for the night at 7 p.m.