Church Tragedy Shows Value of Ambulance Plans

Church Tragedy Shows Value of Ambulance Plans

Collapsed roof and rubble from wall at right indicate extent to rescue problem at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Baltimore.

A church roof collapse that put 28 persons in hospitals gave a severe test that proved the value of the transportation plan developed by the Baltimore Fire Department Ambulance Service. This plan not only gives accident victims the best care as quickly as possible, but also keeps hospitals from becoming overburdened.

There was no hint of the approaching disaster when some 45 adults and children attended Mass in St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Baltimore on the morning of February 9, the day after Ash Wednesday. There was about a foot of snow on the slate, peaked roof, which had a run of about 30 feet on each side of the ridge and was about 100 feet long. Inside the church, which was less than 15 years old, the worshipers could look up and see the wooden A frames bearing the roof. As a creaking and groaning of timbers was heard, the priest shouted a warning to leave the church.

An nun leading 60 pupils into the church vestibule heard the warning, quickly turned her group around and herded them into the street. Her quick response to the warning kept the children from being injured.

Pews shield worshipers

The church clock stopped at 8:10 a.m. as the roof collapsed. Some parishioners who heard the warning sounds avoided injury by ducking below the heavy ash pews, which withstood the first impact of the roof. Fortunately, the roof fell in a providential manner. The ridge pole crashed into the center aisle, and broken beams cascaded atop pews, which supported them. At the sides, some of the beam ends tore down parts of the walls. However, the collapsing timbers left spaces in the center aisle and both side aisles -which fire fighters were able to crawl through to reach victims.

The fire department received the first information on the collapse at 8:13 a.m. The first company to arrive immediately asked for a second alarm and several ambulances.

One of the first things we did was to have the police clear one street leading to the church. This information was radioed to the fire alarm office, which relayed it to responding ambulances. This is important because many times you cannot get ambulances into an area. Or, once at the scene, they may not be able to get out because all exit streets have been blocked by cars of the curious.

Ambulance procedure

The plan we use in Baltimore starts with sending an ambulance to a specific hospital with the injured. Have this ambulance crew tell the responsible person in the emergency room what has occurred. This way, we know that the proper person has been notified. If you telephone, you may get anyone at all. Perhaps someone passing by answers, or someone who does not know what you are talking about. Or after a long detailed explanation, they tell you to wait while they get someone else. A lot of precious time is lost.

Keep sending the same ambulance back to the same hospital. In this manner, the hospital can inform you when it has reached the saturation point or how many more can be accommodated. You have a true picture of each hospital and it in turn has a picture of what is happening and what additional help or supplies may be needed. If the first hospital becomes crowded, you can then start to send to the closest hospital which has not yet been used. You repeat this procedure with each ambulance into each hospital. As a hospital becomes crowded, you send to the next hospital.

Working with this plan we sent 28 persons to four hospitals. Seven ambulances were used and each made two trips. In 30 minutes after the fire department was notified, every injured person was in a hospital. We knew there were no more persons in the rubble and that everyone was being cared for as quickly as possible.

Provision for emergency need

The closest hospital received the least number of injured. This was because I was refraining from sending too many of the least seriously injured there lest we find one or more seriously injured at the very last minute. This seemed possible due to the looks of the situation when we arrived. These then would have gone to the closest hospital for immediate attention, which would have been possible because the facilities had not been clogged previously.

No one died; four persons remained in hospitals with skull, arm and leg fractures.

Everyone involved worked efficiently and quietly. Nearby industry sent cranes, bulldozers, riggers and such. It is a wonderful thing when it is all over to stop and think how considerate people can be when tragedy strikes. Time and money mean nothing if people think they can be of help at a time like this.

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