A fifty year old man has died after a fire at a sheltered housing block.
The man sustained serious burns when the fire broke out in his fourth floor flat in the early hours of yesterday morning. He was pulled from the flat by fire crews, treated at the scene by paramedics and taken to the local hospital, but died from his injuries a few hours later.
Police and fire investigation teams are working at the scene to determine the cause of the blaze.
The long and narrow car park of the block is crowded with fire trucks and police cars, the blue flashes of all the lighting racks skimming around the steep sides of the scene, making the building windows seem to flicker and move.
We park as near as possible on the street.
‘I think I’ll put the old yellow jacket on,’ says Frank.
I grab the resus and obs bags out of the back, but for some reason I don’t go all the way inside and get my jacket.
We’re half way to the heart of the scene when we see a firefighter high up on a cherry picker put in a window with an axe and then lean back as a great coil of black smoke rushes past him out through the jagged hole and away up the face of the building. Despite being perched high up on the white metal platform, every detail of his breathing apparatus, the heavy jacket and boots, the grip of his gloves on the shaft of the axe – the smallest detail is caught in sharp relief by the emergency scene lighting.
I have a change of heart.
‘This looks bad,’ I say to Frank. ‘I gonna nip back for my jacket and some more stuff. Won’t be a minute.’
Back at the truck I hurriedly put my jacket on and then grab the burns kit, carry chair and a couple of blankets.
I pick my way across a maze of swollen hoses that run out across the tarmac. A torrent of water gushes from underneath one fire truck. Fire crews are tightening up breathing gear and passing ahead of me into the lobby and on into the upper reaches of the building. Police officers talk urgently into radios, or lead residents hunched over and coughing through the melee and out onto the patio on the other side of the building.
A fire officer in a chequered tabard waves to me.
‘In the lobby, mate.’
‘How many patients so far?’
‘One coming down. Nothing else so far.’
‘We’ve got more ambulances en route.’
I hurry into the lobby.
The last time I was here I was picking up a resident who’d fallen down drunk in front of the inner set of doors. Apart from the drunk and the warden kneeling alongside him, the lobby had been deserted. Rows of brand new, pressed-wood chairs quietly arranged along the walls, magazines of local interest lined up on the table tops, even the clay bead dressing of the potted plants seemed counted out and perfect. The warden had been so clipped he could have been shaken from the pages of a brochure.
But now the lobby is utterly transformed. Water slops around the laminate flooring. The air smells cool but tainted, drawn down low in a mist of grey and black, like something caught on the stove in a flooded kitchen. Back outside, the roar of the diesel engines rises and falls as the demand constantly changes for water pressure. Then I see Frank. He is standing over the blackened figure of a man on the floor supported from behind in a seating position by a fireman who holds an oxygen mask to his face. Another fireman stands in front of them, dousing the man with a fine spray.
‘Hey guys,’ I say, unzipping the burns kit. My hands shake as I pull some shears out of my pocket and rip open a large burns blanket. Frank has already cut away what he can of the man’s clothes; what’s left are pendant strips of scorched cloth and flesh. His burns are so extensive it’s hard to know where to begin. His abdomen seems to have split vertically above and below the navel, a mottled layer of fat extruding along the line. The man is conscious, but his only response is to follow us with his eyes. Around his nose and mouth the skin is blackened by the smoke he has breathed in, but other than that his face seems untouched by the fire.
I tuck the burns blanket the length of his body and up round his neck, then immediately fish around for any other burns dressings I can find. I use a couple of face dressings on each thigh. Frank has the chair open and ready to go.
‘On three … ‘
We lift him onto the chair with the firemen.
Another crew arrive in the lobby.
‘Just this one so far. Can you take the equipment?’
They carry the bags as we hurry outside. It’s an obstacle course of hoses and trucks. In our haste to get back to the vehicle we roughly manhandle the chair, but the patient stays strapped in position, utterly passive. He doesn’t appear to be in any pain, though. He breathes regularly through the oxygen mask and his eyes follow his own progress with ominous detachment.
At the vehicle Frank puts the lift down and we load up. We transfer him onto the trolley. He seems fixed in a seated position, his legs crooked at ninety degrees and his arms held stiffly along by his side. We don’t even bother to fold the chair away; we kick it to one side into the stairwell.
‘Good to go?’
As Frank climbs out to take us off, and I give the man a nebuliser. When he’s breathing that, I tip a bottle of saline over the areas of his lower legs that I couldn’t cover with burns sheets. I look for some cling film but can’t find any. The ambulance is filled with a cloying mixture of tea tree oil and burned flesh. As it rocks violently from side to side I put my face near to the man’s ear.
‘What’s your name?’ I shout.
He tries to speak.
I pull the mask a little away from his mouth.
He looks up into my eyes and his voice when it comes is rasping and faint.
I replace the mask.
‘Peter – my name’s Spence. We’ll be at the hospital before you know it, okay? Just hang in there, mate.’
I touch him gently on the shoulder as we scream away along the road. I try to estimate the burn area. It has to be in the nineties. His eyes stare out over the mouthpiece of the mask, grey and glistening.
The hospital is just two minutes from here.
‘Almost there,’ I say into his ear. ‘Almost there.’
At the resus room a team of medics is there to meet us. The shock on their faces as we bring him alongside their bed is unmistakeable. As we slide him across on the sheet I shout out what I know, his name, what we’ve done. It isn’t much.
‘I used as many burns sheets as we had,’ I tell the consultant.
‘Good boy,’ he says. ‘Well done.’
The team closes around him as we withdraw with our filthy trolley.
He lives another two hours.