By Vinny Del Giudice
On Jan. 2, 2008, a spectacular fire swept the roof and upper floors of one of the world's leading cancer hospitals - the Royal Marsden Hospital in central London. Twenty-five fire engines along with special units attended the blaze.
Founded in 1851 by Dr. William Marsden, the hospital treats 40,000 patients annually. In the 1920s, the Royal Marsden and the Institute of Cancer Research discovered that cigarette smoke was carcinogenic. In the 1950s, the hospital developed the first forms of chemotherapy.
Watch Manager Kevin Walpole, of the Chelsea fire station’s Red Watch, said: "There was fire in the left section of the roof and it was spreading rapidly because of the wind. One of our crews helped with the evacuation of the fifth floor while the other crew started tackling the fire and we quickly increased attendance to eight fire engines and other specialist equipment.”
Kensington Station Manager Martin Freeman reported: “The fire had spread into the roof space and was severe. Crews were working in arduous conditions and worked extremely hard. We do train for incidents like this and prepare evacuation strategies so we had a clear idea how to tackle this incident.”
Seniors fire officers worked with London water board ``turnkeys'' to ensure an adequate supply of water. The turnkeys respond to fires requiring six pumps or more.
In nearby Dovehouse Street, nurses attended to several patients on mattresses while others were led to safety wrapped in blankets and pushed in wheelchairs, according to a dispatch in The Scotsman newspaper.
Martin Gore, the hospital's medical director, said: "There were two patients having surgery at the time. They have been safely taken off their anaesthetic and ventilators. They were taken to recovery and are now in a neighbouring hospital. Some of the operations were partly interrupted and there may need to be some further surgery but the patients are safe."
Most everyone remained calm, evacuees said.
According to The Scotman newspaper, chemotherapy patient Paul O'Byrne, 50, reported: "We could see the smoke going past the window – it was really billowing past." Carole Williams, 55, standing in the street in a dressing gown, said: "There was no panic whatsoever."
Still, in an interview with BBC Radio 4, Valerie Shawcross, chair of London's fire and emergency planning authority, which oversee the fire brigade, was critical of the National Health Service. Enforcement notices have been served to almost two dozen NHS trusts since firefighters were given responsibility for hospital fire inspections across the U.K., Radio 4 said.
``I think it's very important that the rest of the health service looks at what's happened with the Royal Marsden,'' Shawcross said.``I think Fire Brigades up and down the country feel that they have been grappling to get the attention of the health service to improve their fire safety records and this really is the last chance warning to get on with it.''
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, his wife Sarah and Health Secretary Alan Johnson visited the Chelsea fire station the next day, and the prime minister told firefighters: “I was just at the Royal Brompton and all the patients thank you for your efforts.” Earlier, Brown said he had “nothing but the fullest of praise” for hospital staff and the emergency services.
The Salvation Army said its canteen was sent to the hospital as ``part of the official incident response'' and situated within the police cordon on Sydney Street, where it remained through the night. The canteen provides crews with refreshments and ``a listening ear.'' Said one patron: ``The little red van is like an oasis.''
The hospital reopened to outpatients on Jan. 7.