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This Britain

Let me ask you this: 'What is it like to be in a fire?'


It is singularly the most terrifying and adrenaline-pumping experience I have ever had. That much is to be expected, but add to whatever you're imagining the fact that I was a young nurse and was trying to help women give birth at the time that I realised my hospital was becoming enveloped in smoke.

In 1979, I was working as a new nurse in a small hospital in southern Oklahoma. I worked in Labour and Delivery, the department of hospitals responsible for delivering new-born babies. We were very busy that night.

A woman had just had her baby. The baby was stable and the doctor was finishing the last few stitches. I opened the door and was met with a column of black smoke. I quickly shut the door, walked over to the doctor and whispered, "Something in the hallway is on fire".

It was just the doctor, me, a nursery nurse, the mum, the dad, and the baby in the room. The doctor quickly told them the news. He said, "We have a problem. There is a lot of smoke in the hall. I don't know if there is an electrical problem or what, but we have to get out of here."

We used the sterile water in the cabinet to soak the towels and got everyone's faces wrapped. We walked out into the smoke and within a few steps were able to see that it was billowing out of the laundry shoot. We took the mum to the waiting room and went to a phone to call it in. The phones were dead.

Our unit was full of patients and there were only two nurses and two nurse aides working. This was for two active labour patients, 10 new mums and two babies. I checked the labour patient. She was now nine centimetres and wanting to push. I told her husband that we were going to have to get her out of there. By now, the smoke was coming around the doors.

I told the aide in the nursery to give all the babies to their mothers, immediately. We were going to make it down four flights of stairs and run across the street to our competitor hospital.

We got over to this hospital. The baby was delivered. The mum was taken to a bed there, and that hospital's staff took over her care. The doctor and I ran back to the parking lot to our other patients.

By now, the rest of the hospital was beginning evacuation. Luckily, all of our mums and babies were very stable. They all chose to call family and go home.

Later, it was discovered that this was arson. The arsonist had set fire to the fire alarm control panel a week before the fire he set on this day. When he started the devastating fire, he first disabled the phones. We never found out who the arsonist was. I say "he" but we don't even know that.

Kathy Hurst Davis, mum & nurse

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