Patients forced on to the streets as fire engulfs cancer hospital

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Fire swept through one of Britain's leading cancer hospitals yesterday, severely damaging operating theatres and wards, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of staff and patients.

More than 125 firefighters were involved in fighting the blaze at the Royal Marsden Hospital in south-west London which broke out in a fourth-floor room and rapidly spread along the roof of the building.

Three people one patient and two firefighters received treatment for smoke inhalation while other patients received checks on the pavement outside the building before being moved to other hospitals.

Hospital authorities said that about 800 staff and 90 patients had to be ferried out of the building. A "large proportion" of the five operating theatres and two wards had been badly affected, making it impossible to carry out any operations.

The Royal Marsden was the first hospital in the world dedicated to the study and treatment of cancer. In November 2006, along with its academic partner The Institute of Cancer Research, it was designated the UK's only Biomedical Research Centre for Cancer by The National Institute for Health Research, forming the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe, seeing more than 40,000 patients from the UK and abroad each year.

Professor Ray Powles, former head of haematooncology at the Royal Marsden, said that much of the valuable research material could be saved because there was a second site for the hospital. He added, however, that the loss of the hospital would be a "huge, huge step" back for cancer treatment.

He said: "I worked at the Royal Marsden all my life. It's unbelievable what would happen if it burnt down. It would be a huge, huge step back for all the patients being treated there, and a huge, huge step back for [the treatment of] cancer.

"The research would not be lost, as we have the second centre in Sutton, but you spend 150 years building up an institution like that. Let's just hope that part of it can still function."

Dr Peter Blake, in the radiotherapy department, was in the administrative section of the building when the fire broke out at about 1 pm. He said: "We practised a lot for evacuating people, but financially it's a disaster. The fire seemed to start in the roof. The people who would be most affected are the doctors in theatre and the surgical wards which are above the theatres. That building has the main surgical wards and theatres, as well as the canteen.

"The fire started at the top of the building in the plant room as far as we can see. That's where the air conditioning system is. The problem now is that there is smoke coming through everywhere."

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, said: "This fire is a terrible incident and while the distress to patients being evacuated cannot be underestimated, it is a great tribute to the staff and the emergency services that the evacuation of the entire hospital was done safely. I began my working career at the Royal Marsden Hospital and experienced first-hand the hard work that is done to tackle cancer."

A pioneering centre

* The Royal Marsden is one of the most famous cancer hospitals in the world. With its academic partner the Institute of Cancer Research, it is the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Europe, seeing more than 40,000 patients from the UK and abroad each year.

* It has the highest income from private patients of any hospital in Britain, testifying to its international reputation.

* The fire presents huge logistical problems for those patients who have been evacuated, as well as those receiving out-patient treatment, many of whom require regular radiotherapy or chemotherapy, often every day.

* The hospital has 169 beds at its Fulham road site, where the fire occurred, and another 184 in Sutton, Surrey. Most of the patients evacuated yesterday were taken to the nearby Brompton hospital.

* The chief executive, Cally Palmer, said patients who had been evacuated would continue to be treated by specialist teams in the locations to which they had been taken. Some may also be treated at the Sutton site.

* The Royal Marsden was the first hospital in the world dedicated to the study and treatment of cancer. It was founded in 1851 by Dr William Marsden who was so deeply affected by the death of his wife Elizabeth from cancer that he resolved to classify tumours, research their causes and find new treatments. It moved to its present site in Fulham in 1862.