| 19.11,11. 01:48 AM |
Courage a beacon amid fear and blame after Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire
November 19, 2011
ARSON is the likely cause of the Quakers Hill nursing home fire that killed four elderly residents yesterday and left more than a dozen fighting for survival.
Strike Force Westall, led by the State Crime Command's Homicide Squad, has been formed to investigate the cause of the fire.
Police confirmed the deadly blaze began at the back of the building in two separate locations - indicating arson.
"We'll leave no stone unturned as we get to the bottom of this," Acting NSW Police Commissioner Catherine Burn said, describing the events as a "horror day".
Horrible co-incidence - two dead in french nursing home fire
Eighty-eight elderly residents - many suffering dementia - were woken by alarms shortly before 5am as their nursing home burnt down around them.
Police said, given the intensity of the smoke and fumes, there was a very real chance that the death toll could rise.
Last night, 13 people remained in critical condition in intensive care units in various Sydney hospitals, including five people who were receiving acute care at Concord Hospital's burns unit.
A further 18 people were being treated in hospital with injuries which were not considered life-threatening.
Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins described the blaze as "a firefighter's worst nightmare ... turning up to a nursing home with elderly people who can't get themselves out of harm's way," Mr Mullins said.
He confirmed at least three of the people killed had been in rooms closest to where the fire started, separated from the other residents by a fire door.
As day broke yesterday, and relatives learned of the deadly blaze, chaos descended on the Hambledon Rd facility.
Covered in ash and soot, bewildered elderly people, dozens still in their beds and some in wheelchairs, waited for help as emergency crews scrambled to make sure all 88 residents were accounted for.
More than 100 firefighters fought the intense blaze, while more than 70 paramedics treated the elderly.
Amid the carnage and despair, there were scenes of tremendous bravery.
Two young police officers were first on scene and were later praised for entering the burning building without the proper protective clothing and breathing equipment to help rescue the victims.
"They are heroes," Assistant Commissioner Superintendent Robert Redfern said.
But it wasn't just emergency workers who braved the inferno to rescue people.
Katrina Michael jumped a gate and ignored thick smoke to rescue her grandfather. The distraught woman said she arrived at the burning nursing home and bolted towards her grandfather's room. "I wasn't stopping, I just had to get in there," she said.
Neighbours whose houses backed on to the nursing home jumped their fences and helped fire crews as they pulled elderly residents out, one by one, and carried them to safety.
"I've survived 95 years, I can survive a fire," one elderly resident said. A marshalling area was set up at the end of the street, where relatives gathered and waited anxiously for news.
Police read out a list of names, then told family where their relatives had been taken to for treatment or care.
One man collapsed and had to be treated by paramedics when police told him that his relative had not been found.
Simone Kelly woke to her 75-year-old father Max Burrows calling her, "coughing" down the phone line.
"He could hardly talk but he was saying 'I'm all right'," Mrs Kelly said. "I said 'What do you mean you're all right?' and then he told me about the fire."
Chris Webeck was one of the dozens of people who had no choice but to ring every hospital in the local area, looking for his relative.
"I didn't know if they'd know the patients by name, and mum's an amputee, so I was ringing up saying 'Have you got a woman with one leg there?'," Mr Webeck said.
At the nearby Quakers Hill Anglican Church, which opened its doors as a makeshift evacuation centre, Reverend Geoff Bates said he had never seen scenes like it before.
The blaze has renewed calls for building code changes to make sprinklers compulsory in care facilities. The nursing home passed a safety audit in July but does not have an emergency Wsprinkler system.
Australia is out of step with countries such as America, which mandated sprinklers in new and existing nursing homes in 2008.