From surgical calm to chaos and death: hospital encounters storm's fury

The news yesterday that St John's Hospital was moved four inches on its foundations by last Sunday's tornado hardly comes as a surprise to Terry Burns, a surgery technician who was assisting with a hip operation when it struck. In fact, nobody who was inside the building at the time would argue with it.

What had been a standard Sunday afternoon on the operating theatre floor turned to bedlam after the order came to "execute code grey" – the signal to prepare for a tornado.

They had maybe two minutes before it hit, not even enough time to close up the wound on the patient. Mr Burns dashed into the adjacent recovery room where two nurses were lying on top of a man waking up from bladder surgery, in an effort to protect him. Mr Burns climbed on top of them all.

Three storeys above, Julie St-Clair was trying to cheer up her 86-year-old father when the alarm was sounded. She wheeled him away from the windows as fast as she could and into the hallway on the hospital's fifth floor, which was already crammed with patients in their rolling beds. Then it struck. "It was just this wave of air," says Mr Burns, who four days later still finds it hard to talk about what happened. "The tornado seemed to push and pull me all at the same time. They call it the Big Suck, I think. I was on top of the nurses and I just started shouting, 'Keep your head down, keep your head down'."

When it stopped, Ms St-Clair looked up to find the corridor, which minutes earlier had been as stuffed as an underground train carriage, completely empty but for her and her father. "It was so wild, everyone was gone," she recalls. Everyone else had been sucked through double doors across to the other side of the building.

The storm may have passed but the hospital was in chaos. "The ceiling was falling and water was coming out of it," Mr Burns recalls. Within moments, the recovery room was filled with people who had been in Emergency.

"There was no light," says Ms St-Clair, who struggled down five flights with her father by the light of her mobile phone.

By the time they had reached the ground floor, the shattered hospital was besieged by people from the outside. They arrived with the wounded and the dead. "They came from everywhere, but we couldn't do anything for them. We closed up the hip guy, that's all," says Mr Burns. People brought bodies in on anything flat they had been able to find, even sofas.

Ms St-Clair tried to wheel her father outside on an office chair but there just too much debris for it to roll. She found a tablecloth and wrapped him in it until, three hours later, her son-in-law arrived to take them home. With a full evacuation under way, Mr Burns and a colleague knew they would have to walk home. "I was covered in blood," he says. "Not my blood."

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