NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Bedridden patients screamed for help and firefighters carried the elderly and disabled down ladders and stairs as a fire spread through a four-story nursing home with no sprinkler system, killing eight people and critically injuring 16.
The home was exempt from a state law requiring sprinklers, but firefighters said such devices probably would have saved lives.
The fire broke out late Thursday in a second-floor room of the NHC Healthcare Center (search), on the edge of downtown Nashville.
The cause was under investigation. Officials said there was no immediate evidence of arson.
Most of the 116 residents were carried out by firefighters or rolled in wheelchairs to safety. Few patients could walk, and the nursing home's elevators were knocked out in the fire, which filled the home with smoke.
Some of the residents were put on backboards and carried down ladders. Some patients had oxygen tanks, and one was on a ventilator.
Hettie May Akin, 96, said she was awakened by screams. She could not get out of bed because she is paralyzed from the waist down.
"The smoke was so thick, you could cut it with a knife," Akin said. "I saw a light, and it was a fireman coming to get me out. I began screaming when I saw that light."
The evacuated residents were taken to a terrace outside and to four hospitals. It took firefighters about an hour to contain the blaze, which was confined largely to one end of the building but spread smoke throughout the place. It took about two more hours to evacuate the home.
Among the victims was Thelma Connelly, the 96-year-old mother of District Fire Chief Bobby Connelly, who was off duty but went to the scene, said Deputy Fire Chief Kim Lawson.
"You can imagine what he's going through," District Chief David Warman said. "She was a really sweet lady — a feisty lady. When you met her, you never forgot her."
Eighty-two residents and one nursing home employee were treated at Nashville hospitals for burns and smoke inhalation.
The dead were all women: Connelly; Margaret H. Dilbeck, 80; Alma I. Gordy, 85; Dorothy M. Lee, 76; Isabel Lollar, 85; Priscilla B. Polk, 82; and Anna Tolston, 86; and Lydia Bodnar, 86.
The hospital-style bed in the room where the fire broke out was removed by investigators for analysis, officials said. The bed had an electrical mechanism that raised and lowered it.
The only sprinkler in the building was over the grill in the kitchen, as required by law, said Gerald Coggin, a spokesman for National Healthcare Corp. (search), the company that owns the center.
When Tennessee adopted a national building code in 1994 that requires sprinklers in residential areas of nursing homes, the center was grandfathered in: Sprinklers would be required in the brick-and-steel home, built in the 1960s, only if it was extensively renovated, said Diane Denton, state Health Department spokeswoman.
"It followed national fire and safety codes," Coggin said. "The building passed fire code inspection every year and has been in complete compliance since we owned it."
Denton said the center failed a fire drill test in May because the staff failed to shout "Code Red!" and sound the alarm during the drill. The staff received training and passed a second fire drill June 17.
Of the 343 licensed nursing homes in Tennessee, 52 either have no sprinklers or just a partial system, Denton said.
Democratic state Sen. Roy Herron (search), who has pushed for nursing home reform laws, was sharply critical of the exemption of older nursing homes from the sprinkler requirement.
"The cost of grandfathering in those nursing homes has been paid for by the grandfathers and grandmothers who were killed," Herron said. "I'm sure a number of the families think the cost of providing safe nursing homes would have been worth it."
In February, 16 patients were killed in a fire at a Hartford, Conn., nursing home, and fire officials there also said there was no sprinkler system in the building, even though it was up to code.
In the Nashville blaze, Assistant Fire Chief Lee Bergeron said, "Definitely, sprinklers would have subdued the fire quicker. It would have eliminated the smoke that we generated, and it would have made a difference in this fire."
He added: "We can't be soothsayers and tell you exactly how much difference, but we do know that we would probably have more people survive this fire."
National Healthcare, which operates 87 long-term health care centers, mostly in Tennessee and elsewhere in the South, bought the building in 1976.