More than 110 patients were safely relocated
on Jan. 4 after a fire broke out in a non-patient care area of
John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. While the fire was contained
to a small area, the smoke was not—requiring full evacuation
of both John Sealy Hospital and John Sealy Annex.
Hundreds of UTMB employees from all areas of the institution
immediately jumped into action, putting their emergency training
to use to ensure the safety and well-being of patients, visitors and
colleagues. In a calm but quick response, all patients—including
new mothers, newborns, neonates, children and Blocker Burn
Center and cath lab patients—were safely evacuated.
UTMB President Dr. David Callender said the fire and smoke
incident, while unfortunate, highlighted the extraordinary
people who come to work at UTMB every day.
“When circumstances seem to be at their worst, the UTMB
family is always at its best,” said Dr. Callender. “Your flexibility,
your willingness to step in where help is needed, and your
professionalism and compassion in the face of a great challenge
are deeply appreciated. You have done UTMB and our mission
The following represent just a few of the many
employee heroes who stepped up, put their own needs aside
and truly worked wonders during the fire and in its aftermath.
Evacuating UTMB’s smallest patients
Yesenia Sandino, NICU nurse manager, was in a meeting with neonatal staff and
leadership when she received word that a fire alarm had gone off—and this time,
it wasn’t a drill.
“Everyone in the meeting—which was about 20 people—ran from the Waverley Smith
Pavilion to their patients in John Sealy and John Sealy Annex,” she recalled. “In some
areas, we had to push through smoke to reach our babies, but it was amazing to
see the teamwork going on. Respiratory therapists were getting oxygen together
to make the babies mobile and ready to evacuate. Nurses, doctors, Health System
leadership, volunteers—everyone pitched in to put the patient first.”
With some babies on ventilators or in incubators, transporting a single neonate
could take a team of up to seven or more people to carry all the equipment. Other
babies could be put in specially designed pockets of fire vests worn by nursing staff
in the event of an evacuation.
Dr. Rafael Fonseca, associate professor in the Division of Neonatology, personally
led several new moms and babies to safety. More mobile patients and families were
brought directly over to Jennie Sealy Hospital, where they were greeted with open
arms. In all, 37 of UTMB’s smallest patients were safely relocated.
Sandino went home that night and posted an entry on her Facebook page, summing
up her emotions from the day.
“UTMB was awesome today,” she wrote. “Just amazing teamwork! I couldn’t be more
proud of our entire staff. We were faced with an emergent situation and we acted just like we were trained to do. We were great. We were. And if you hear anything
different, don’t believe it. Cause I know. And u know how I know? EVERY baby is
safe tonight. EVERY single one.”
Teaming up to carry patient down nine flights of stairs
Dr. Todd Masel, an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, and Aurelio
Anderson, a patient care tech, didn’t know each other before Jan. 4, but that didn’t
keep them from working together to carry a patient down nine flights of stairs.
In the midst of the evacuation, Masel walked through a smoky hallway on the ninth
floor to see if anyone in the pediatric area needed help—that’s where he ran into
Anderson, who was preparing a teenager for transport.
“The patient couldn’t walk—he was weak after a recent surgery,” said Masel. “So
each of us grabbed a leg and had one of his arms over our shoulders. Then we
headed into the stairwell.”
When the patient began panicking, the two men reassured the teenager that he was
going to be OK. They stopped momentarily to let the patient relax and even called
his mother to tell her he was safe.
Once they got the teenager evacuated, Masel headed up the stairs to help carry
more patients down. Fatigue didn’t set in until he got home later that night, when he
realized he never asked for Anderson’s name.
“It all happened so fast,” said Masel,
reflecting on the experience. “Over the
course of a normal workday, there
are people you recognize and say
‘hi’ to but don’t really know their
names. But after working together
to carry a patient to safety during
an extraordinary circumstance like
this, you kind of develop a whole
Letting the motherly instincts kick in
January 4 was supposed to be a day off for Natalie Agnew, a housekeeper with Environmental Services (EVS). But she offered to cover a shift on the ninth floor of John Sealy Hospital for a sick co-worker.
After cleaning several rooms in the pediatric intensive care unit, Agnew stopped at the nurses station to talk to Laura Gonzales, a patient experience supervisor. That’s when they both smelled smoke and heard the fire alarm go off. They quickly learned that an evacuation was underway.
“The patients were all babies and children, so my first thought was ‘We need to get them out of here fast,’” said Agnew. “I’m a mother of four, so that motherly instinct kicked in instantly.”
Agnew and Gonzales helped evacuate several patients, including carrying a child in a wheelchair down a back stairwell. Once outside, several EVS staff stayed with patients to provide comfort and blankets.
Along with Agnew and Gonzales, dozens of EVS employees took various actions to help during and after the fire. Lynn Smith, patient satisfaction manager, helped direct patients and staff to the nearest exits during the evacuation and then stayed with a team of employees until late that night to finish cleaning rooms in Jennie Sealy Hospital for evacuated patients.
Kurt Dickson, assistant director of Environmental Services, said, “Many employees stayed until 11 p.m. to make sure units were ready for patients. I’m proud of everybody—they came together and really made a big difference.”
Overcoming fears to ensure public safety
Hearing the word “fire” makes Herbert Moore, a public safety officer with the UTMB Police Department, a little nervous. When he was a child, he witnessed a neighbor’s house burn to the ground. The experience—even the sounds of the fire popping and crackling—has stuck with him through the years. But he put that fear aside as he escorted firefighters through John Sealy Hospital.
“I’ve been here so long, I know my way around the buildings better than most,” said Moore, who has worked at UTMB for nearly 31 years. “When the lights in John Sealy went out after Hurricane Ike, I already knew where all the stairwells and exits were, so I knew I could help get people to where they needed to go.”
In addition to Moore, Officer Gerardo Gonzales, Officer Carlton Scott, Detective Jacob Corbitt and several other members of the UTMB Police Department were some of the first responders to arrive on the scene. UTMB Police guided firefighters through the building to pinpoint the exact location of the fire, helped evacuate patients and directed traffic away from the building.
Officer Gonzales said the evacuation could have been chaotic, but it wasn’t, thanks to the teamwork of staff, doctors, nurses, volunteers and others.
“People didn’t panic and they did what they needed to do to get the patients and families out,” said Gonzales. “Everybody fell back on their training, remained calm and worked together really well.”
Leading the charge
While most people run away from danger, UTMB Fire Marshal Mark Morgan is trained to run toward it. That’s just what he did on Jan. 4—leading the charge to evacuate people safely and contain a fire inside John Sealy Hospital.
“I heard it on the radio and dispatch called me,” said Morgan. “I was right behind the hospital, so I ran up the stairs to the second floor and saw smoke coming from behind some fire doors. I immediately told the fire department the location of the fire and the extent of the smoke.”
Morgan works with UTMB’s Fire and Life Safety program as a liaison between the Galveston Fire Department and the institution. He communicated evacuation orders to employees while coordinating efforts with firefighters, police and other UTMB departments. Then he walked around the perimeter to make sure the fire hadn’t spread and ensured all fire doors were closed to contain the smoke.
Morgan’s colleague, Brandon Metting, a safety specialist who monitors fire alarm systems, ran across campus to help.
“We went to the south stairwell and that’s where we ran into the Labor and Delivery unit heading down,” said Metting. “I worked with two nurses and a property services employee to bring a woman in a wheelchair down the stairs—it took a team, but we have a lot of good people.”
After the fire was extinguished, the Fire and Life Safety team made sure all fire alarm and sprinkler systems in the remainder of the building were back online. Morgan said UTMB’s Property Services employees played a big role in response efforts, including shutting down power to elevator lobbies to prevent a massive short-circuit of power from the water used to fight the fire.
Keeping employees and visitors fed
Holly Allen, Bill Bond and Joshua Coulter gave new meaning to “going the extra mile” for customers. The UTMB and Morrison Healthcare Food and Nutrition Services employees stayed long after their shifts had ended to ensure all hungry employees and visitors were fed.
“We all worked a double,” said Allen, a supervisor at Einstein Bros. Bagels in Jennie Sealy Hospital.
When news spread quickly that Einstein’s was the only restaurant open after the fire, customer lines started snaking down the hall.
“It was crazy busy, but we were happy to help and people were patient,” she said. “We were going to feed everybody no matter what.”
Bond, who usually supervises Subway in Café on the Court, immediately came to help. The three worked non-stop until tuna and tortilla sandwiches were the only menu items left. The food eventually ran out and police had to escort Allen and Bond to a kitchen in the blocked-off John Sealy Hospital to restock supplies.
They closed Einstein’s at 11:30 p.m., more than four hours past the normal closing time.
The employees have no idea how many customers were served, but they were thankful that no one was left hungry.
Many other Food and Nutrition Services employees also helped during and after the fire—making sure staff and customers evacuated Café on the Court quickly and safely, and volunteering to help prepare meals for the displaced patients.