Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The 25th March 2013 Fire at the Sarawak General Hospital

"Seems to me the basic conflict between men and women, sexually, is that men are like firemen. To men, sex is an emergency, and no matter what we're doing we can be ready in two minutes. Women, on the other hand, are like fire. They're very exciting, but the conditions have to be exactly right for it to occur."

Jerry Seinfeld

At 8:27 PM yesterday, one of my colleagues working the night shift in the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) texted in our departmental Whatsapp group for house officers,

"Kebakaran!!!" wrote Olivia.

Unlike the cry of "fire" in the English language, the Malay word "kebakaran" specifically carries the meaning of a destructive fire-related event separate from the actual Malay word for fire, which is "api". That is besides the point, I know. I thought it was a joke but she confirmed it,

"Yes, in the hospital. Evacuating patients. LOL."
I didn't add that. She really did say LOL.

Another house officer working yesterday night posted the following blurry camera-phone picture,

SGH Fire
At the main entrance of the SGH.

And it wasn't a drill. Sarawak General Hospital made like Nero's Rome and burned. It was only successfully doused at about 9:30 PM and from real-time updates provided by my colleagues-on-duty, I assumed that it wasn't too bad because the evacuated patients were later carted back to their respective wards where they can continue dying at their own leisurely pace. Speculations were abound. As the smoke rose from the corner of the main building where the linen department's located, many assumed that someone must have dropped a cigarette butt into a basket of scrubs or something.

I am working tonight but this morning, I had to go to the hospital to give a presentation on vesicoureteric reflux. After that was dealt with, I hotfooted to the linen department and found that business was proceeding as usual there. After exploring the perimeter of the hospital for a couple of minutes, I found the site of interest right outside the west wing of the main hospital block. There were yellow tapes to keep the riffraff out but introducing myself as a doctor working in the PICU, I simply waltzed in and mingled amongst the fire investigators, journalists, and maintenance company reps.

SGH Fire 01
It was the utility shaft.

I spoke to a firefighter on site and he told me that they were currently investigating how the conflagration conflagrated, and were questioning witnesses, taking pictures, looking at schematics, interviewing reps from the company responsible for maintaining the utility hardware and scribbling down notes and schematics - y'know, serious fire-investigating business.

As you can see in the picture above, the two biggest blackened pipes (which seemed to have grown some bumpy warts on them) are part of the air-conditioning system of the hospital and the extreme heat had warped the foam insulation around them. The smaller pipes carry all the other stuff that a hospital needs like water, nitrous oxide, medical air and oxygen. We were very lucky that the medical air and oxygen conduits didn't go kaboom and take half the hospital with it (the PICU, where I am currently posted in, is right above the spot). Those pipes were lined with asbestos. And considering that it happened right outside the Radiology Department, we could have lost our very, very, very expensive scanning equipments - even without the stopping power of a cinematic explosion.

I spoke to an electrician and he told me that the inferno probably started from the high voltage wires that also run in the utility shaft and one of them is a humongous, python-thick cable that supplies our MRI machine. I have no idea how much power is required to keep an MRI machine running but the cost of the maintenance of just one can go into obscene seven digit figures in just one year. He thinks that one of these cables must have overheated and cooked the shaft until it is crispy.

SGH Fire 03
A photographer taking pictures of the exposed MRI power cable.

SGH Fire 05
Here is a closeup.

I am no engineering expert, but having incredibly high voltage cables in the same utility shaft where a large pipeline filled with compressed oxygen also runs sounds stupidly dangerous to me.

And just in case you are interested, the utility shaft runs from here,

SGH Fire 06
The powerhouse of that keeps the hospital running.

To here,

SGH Fire 07
A hospital that is barely running.

While the Radiology Department is still semi-operational, all the MRI scan appointments were diverted to the MRI suite over to our sister hospital, the Heart Centre (PJHUS) and we have no idea when we can start firing up our machine again. Also, only emergency CT scans would be entertained for the day due to a risk of overheating. I heard that they were going to tear up the concrete-entombed part of the utility shaft to investigate further and repair the damage - so it is definitely going to take awhile.

The PICU smelled like people had been barbecuing char siew in there all night long and that made me hungry so I went to have char siew rice for lunch. The air-conditioning seemed to have gone kaput so I am seriously dreading tonight when I have to report for duty. Does it make me evil that a small part of me wish that the PICU was blown to smithereens just so I don't need to go to work? After the very sick children and babies were evacuated, of course. I am not a total monster.

Patients lodging at the billing counters. Photograph courtesy of Nadim Bokhari.

No one died.

Insider source,

k0k s3n w4i

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