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Fatal Durham hospital fire may have started during defibrillation

Posted November 6, 2012

— Investigators said a fire that killed a patient and injured three staff members at Durham Regional Hospital early Tuesday may have started during a defibrillation procedure.

Preliminary findings by the state Department of Health and Human Services determined a spark happened during the defibrillation, igniting the blaze that broke out on the sixth floor. It was not immediately clear whether the spark was caused by equipment malfunction.

Investigators also said the hospital's sprinkler system worked properly and the staff responded appropriately to the incident.

The fire was initially reported as an explosion about 2:15 a.m., although Durham Fire Department officials said there was no evidence of an explosion when they arrived on scene.

In a 911 recording released by officials Tuesday, witnesses described a chaotic scene, saying the smoke was "overwhelming" and pleading with emergency responders for help.

"We have a fire oxygen explosion in a room where we were doing a code," one witness told a call-taker. "We have a patient in that room and other patients around. The floor is filled with smoke."

Authorities have not released the name or gender of the person who died in the fire. A statement from the hospital said the patient who died was critically ill, and that the timing and cause of death will be determined by the state medical examiner.

The sixth floor houses Select Specialty Hospital, a separate facility that specializes in long-term acute care for patients who have longer stays in the hospital. The unit has 30 beds. 

No patients were evacuated because of the fire, hospital officials said, but some were moved to other parts of the hospital because of flooding caused by the sprinklers. Investigators said there was water damage to the fourth, fifth and sixth floors.

"They are safe and they are being well cared for," said Katie Galbraith, hospital chief of operations. She said the hospital staff practices for such emergencies.

"Our focus is on making sure people are safe," Galbraith said. "They did exactly what they're trained to do."

Three Select Specialty Hospital employees and one Duke employee were treated for smoke inhalation. Three patients in the area of the fire were transported to the hospital's intensive care unit to continue receiving care, officials said.


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  • scarlett2 Nov 8, 2012

    We had to watch a video once years ago at an annual training, on how a fire can start with an oxygen source and an electrical source present like a defibrillator. It was incredible how quickly it started and engulfed the whole patient. This old video should be shown at all hospitals. There was a case years ago where an OR patient caught fire from oxygen going under the drapes and the surgeon was using electrical cautery. The whole room panicked because the blaze and smoke was so intense, they ran out, leaving the patient to burn to death while under anesthesia. It was horrible. People become numb to what they are doing everyday on the job and forget the basics of safety.

  • scarlett2 Nov 8, 2012

    One crucial thing that most healthcare providers forget during a code is to turn the oxygen off or place it well away from the patient when you are using the defibrillator. I am guessing that no one in the room did this, and they are the source of the explosion/fire. It only takes a second to shut it off then turn it quickly back on after defibrillation. Usually during a code, so many people are in the room, it becomes chaos and nobody is thinking about it. Hospitals should have annual training and emphasize this in their training that if you do not shut off the oxygen, you can start a fire. Assign one person during a code to handle the oxygen, one to do chest compressions, one to operate the defibrillator, one to start IVs and inject medications. If everyone has an assigned role on their team, accidents will be rare. I have seen codes where no one even removed the oxygen mask or shut off the oxygen at all; they were lucky that they didn't start a fire.

  • jackcdneh1017 Nov 7, 2012

    As a former student at Watts School of Nursing based out of Durham Regional, I can attest to the fine care provided there. It is a wonder that more fires are not started this way. In a code, electrical energy is delivered to the patient in a attempt to have the heart re- start in a stable rhythm. This is done while others are ventilating the patient with oxygen by necessity. Just another example where health care professionals risk their well-being when trying to save a life.

  • I_know_right Nov 7, 2012


  • JAT Nov 7, 2012

    Ouch! Terrible accident for sure.

  • debnsnoop Nov 6, 2012

    simple is so appropriate and your comment NOT appropriate....a life was lost ...show a little respect....

  • Diva RN Nov 6, 2012

    Well, now it looks fairly conclusive that it was not smoking-related.

    @Scubagirl- I remember on my L&D rotation, a woman in active labor smoking in the bathroom of her room. *sigh*

    And it is also very sad that some people apparently jumped to the conclusion that it was the fault of a psych patient. Mental illnesses will continue to be stigmatized as long as there are people who think like that. Actually, psych patients would be LESS likely to have something to light a fire because unlike other types of patients, psych patients can be legally searched and their belongings confiscated upon admission.

    As a nurse, my heart goes out to all the health care workers and the patient involved. So sad.

  • Scubagirl Nov 6, 2012

    WOW! I would have NEVER considered that as the cause. How horrible for all involved. Good job to the staff and condolences to all.

    For those saying "how could anyone think patient was smoking?" Been there, seen it, taken cigs and matches away from patients in an ICU so it DOES happen and with no more details than we had this morning I think it was a somewhat logical assumption. Yes, it was an assumption-proven wrong this time.

  • Texan Nov 6, 2012

    I'm very sorry for the person who lost their life. It's very rare, but it does happen. The staff should be commended for taking care of the other patients and putting them first before their own safety.

  • debnsnoop Nov 6, 2012

    I am a big fan of WRAL but I have to say I was very disappointed when your headlines read " One Killed " you made us sound like killers.To all the one's that yacked on about smoking..get a life !!! If you were not there then you have no right to assume !!!! I am proud to be part of the DRH Family....My prayers to family and friends of the deceased and injured..