3 die in Australian nursing home fire

2011-11-18 08:10

Sydney - Two fires raced through a Sydney nursing home filled with bedridden and mentally ill patients before dawn Friday, killing three elderly people and critically injuring eight as fire-fighters crawled through blinding smoke to rescue victims.

Authorities were investigating whether the fires, which broke out in separate parts of the complex, were arson. Fire Assistant Commissioner Jim Smith said a sniffer dog would search the ruins for traces of gasoline or other accelerants.

A total of 88 patients were evacuated from the single-story building in suburban Quakers Hill, many of them left in the open on beds and in wheelchairs until they could be transported to alternative accommodation. Many of the patients have dementia.

"This is a fire-fighter’s worst nightmare," Fire Commissioner Greg Mullins said. "Turning up to a nursing home with elderly people who can't get themselves out of harm's way."

Flames raced through the ceiling, and part of the roof of a wing collapsed. Police confirmed that three patients were dead, including two whose bodies remained in the charred ruins of a room where one of the fires started. That area was too dangerous for investigators to enter.

Ambulance Superintendent Ross Chivers said 29 patients were taken to hospitals to be treated for smoke inhalation and minor burns, and that eight of them were critically ill. No staff member was injured.

Federal Minister for Mental Health and Aging Mark Butler said the nursing home's fire safety systems were found to meet standards during an audit in July. Smith, the assistant fire commissioner, said the nursing home did not have sprinklers but was not required by law to have such a fire safety system.

"The reason there's not more fatalities is the tremendous work of the emergency workers getting there very quickly ... and rescuing those patients very quickly," Smith said.

Neighbour Don Cook, who shares a fence with the nursing home, was among the first on the scene to see patients carried out.

"The old people, a lot of them seemed to be staring into space - they didn't know what was going on," Cook told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. "To me, a lot of them looked bewildered."

Fire-fighters described the blaze as Sydney's worst since 16 patients died in a nursing home fire in suburban Sylvania Heights in 1981.