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Inside a hospital surrounded by flames: Working amid smoke and darkness

November 15, 2008 |  6:03 am

Sayre fire

Around midnight, tall walls of flames quickly surrounded Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar.

Embers blew down streets, catching trees and shrubs on fire around the hospital.

Before long, the hospital was surrounded on all sides by fire. Security guards and staff had to work quickly. Smoke began seeping into the ventilation system and into the lower floors of the hospital.

They needed to get the most critically ill patients to the safety of the upper floors. But there was a complicating factor: Fire had destroyed power lines that supplied the hospital. Then backup generators failed.

Flames were within a football field's length of the entrance. Homes on the west side of the hospital were burning.

Amid the chaos, four critically ill babies were loaded into ambulances as concerned hospital staffers saw them off in darkness.

About 200 people were at Olive View at the time the fire broke out. Nearly two dozen were suffering from serious injuries requiring them to be moved. Some, who needed help breathing, were attended to by staffers with manual breathing bags.

Inside, staffers and security guards used flashlights to move about in the pitch-dark halls.

Hospital management and fire officials set up a makeshift command center in a cramped second-floor room at the hospital. By the glow of several flashlights, they pored over patient lists, contacted other hospitals and made arrangements with ambulance companies. A piercing fire alarm continued to blare.

There was talk of evacuating the hospital. Others urged a wait-and-see approach.

Shortly before 4 a.m. the lights came back on.

-- Andrew Blankstein at Olive View Medical Center

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times