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Fire evacuates nursing home

February 17, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

Martinsburg school closed Wednesday

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- An apparent electrical fire at a nursing home just outside Martinsburg forced the evacuation of more than 100 patients and staff who now are not expected to be able to return to the facility for three days, fire and emergency officials said.

No one was injured in the fire at Heartland of Martinsburg at 209 Clover St., officials said.

The fire in a electrical "cabinet" in a basement area was quickly extinguished, but not before smoke traveled into patient areas of the facility, according to Bedington Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Andrew DeHaven and Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth M. "Kenny" Lemaster Jr.

More than a dozen of the patients were taken to City Hospital in Martinsburg because of their heightened need for medical services, such as oxygen.

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DeHaven said some might have experienced minor smoke inhalation and emergency officials said one complained of chest pains.

The remaining patients were taken to Martinsburg North Middle School, where a girls basketball tournament was under way.

The second of two games in the gymnasium was canceled so patient care could continue there, as well as in the cafeteria.

Classes at the school are canceled today and emergency response officials said the nursing home expected to have the patients relocated to other facilities to avoid any further disruption at North Middle.

The school was swarming with volunteers, concerned family members and a host of medical providers, emergency responders and police officers as nursing home staff escorted patients to bathroom facilities there.

The American Red Cross was prepared to provide more than 100 cots, but Steve Allen, director of the Berkeley County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said the nursing home was hoping to relocate at least 44 patients to other facilities Tuesday night.

"I cannot give enough accolades to the school board and the Red Cross for pulling everybody together (here)," Allen said.

Berkeley County School buses equipped with handicapped chairlifts joined ambulance vehicles from the Eastern Panhandle, Frederick County, Va., and Washington County, Md., in helping transport blanket-wrapped patients, who were forced to endure the cold weather in wheelchairs, chairs and beds outside the nursing home. Representatives from The Living Room also provided a bus and coffee.

The last patient was transported to the school more than an hour after DeHaven said fire officials received the fire call at about 6 p.m.

Heavy black smoke was coming from a basement window at the rear of the building and the fire was put out "very quickly," DeHaven said.

The exact cause of the fire was still under investigation, DeHaven said.

Lemaster said the south end of the health-care facility was "smoky" while patients were being evacuated.

Martinsburg Utilities Director Stephen M. Knipe was among several family members seen arriving at the nursing home to check on their loved ones.

Knipe said his 96-year-old mother was unharmed.

At the school, Red Cross official Mickey Johnson told officials that the relief agency had more than a dozen workers on hand to support any needs at the school, including blankets and cots.

Two school custodians volunteered to spend the night at the school to help with any needs there.

School Principal Elizabeth Ward said she initially thought the school could allow the basketball tournament to continue.

"We were having a basketball game, and the police showed up and said they were evacuating a nursing home," Ward said.

After realizing the amount of patients involved, Ward said she called Superintendent Manny P. Arvon and said "this is big."

Arvon and Board of Education President William F. "Bill" Queen took part in a hastily arranged meeting with Heartland staff and emergency officials about how the patients would be cared for at the school and ultimately transported elsewhere.

"It's amazing how a community comes together in a time like this," Allen said.

While emergency practice exercises held in recent years certainly helped with how units responded Tuesday, Allen added that it wasn't "a well-greased machine."

Lemaster said dead-end streets leading to the nursing home in a residential neighborhood behind Old Courthouse Square shopping plaza did not help emergency response.

He credited a team effort among responders and noted the help of Martinsburg Police Department, deputy reserves and animal control officers who helped speed up the response. Warm Springs Avenue and other access streets were blocked to nonemergency traffic.


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