10 patients and nurse die within seconds in hospital fire
Eleven people died within seconds yesterday when fire tore through an air-tight, high-pressure treatment chamber at Milan's Ricardo Galeazzi hospital. The Milan prosecutor, Mr Francesco Saverio Borelli, said the victims, 10 patients and a nurse, were either burned or asphyxiated.
Of those who died, eight were women. One was an elderly woman who had just checked into the state-subsidised private orthopedic hospital in the Milan suburb of Bruzzano.
The so-called "hyperbaric" chamber is a room where air pressure can be kept higher than normal or where a mix of oxygen and nitrogen can be administered. Such chambers are used to treat patients with deep-wound infections or divers recovering from the "bends".
"It is like a long tunnel that can hold 12 people," explained a member of the hospital staff.
Mr Borelli said a technician outside the chamber spotted a spark inside. "He immediately switched on the decompression and anti-fire systems. The flames were promptly extinguished," he said, but it was too late to save those inside.
The deputy prosecutor in charge of the investigation, Mr Francesco Pete, said the fire was probably touched off by a metal object taken into the chamber by a patient. They were also looking into the possibility of an oxygen leak from oxygen masks installed in the chamber. An electrical fault was cited as another possible cause.
"The main hypothesis we are working on is that one of the patients had something metallic on him . . . The flames, which only lasted a very short time, took up all the oxygen in less than 30 seconds," he said.
A fire brigade official said the high oxygen content in the chamber would have made the process of combustion unstoppable once fire broke out.
Ten patients who were being treated in an adjoining room were unharmed.
More than 100 fire fighters and other rescue workers converged on the scene, as did many relatives of the victims.
Milan's mayor, Mr Gabriele Albertini, the city's chief of police and an investigating magistrate all went to the hospital.
From Rome, the Italian Prime Minister, Mr Romano Prodi, issued a message of condolence to the victims' families.
The hospital's owner, Mr Antonino Ligresti, said: "It's staggering. A machine that has saved and saves so many lives can, in a moment, turn into a death machine."