ISHPEMING TOWNSHIP, Mich. – A fire early Monday at a nursing home in far northern Michigan forced dozens of elderly people into the snow and bitter cold, including many who were unable to walk and wearing only nightclothes. Two people died and at least 70 were injured.
Firefighters broke windows to rescue residents in 14-degree weather, and beds were knocked askew in the rush to evacuate.
The fire left walls blackened at the 122-bed Mather Nursing Center about 360 miles north of Detroit. A set of dentures left behind were melted in the searing heat, and Christmas cards were burned under a small Christmas tree sitting next to a television in one room.
Light snow was falling when the blaze was reported just after midnight with 108 elderly and seriously ill residents inside. Most were confined to beds or wheelchairs.
The cause of the fire was under investigation. Officials with the nursing home turned away reporters at the front door and would not comment.
"It's just amazing that they got that many people out," said Jenafer Kumpula, whose grandmother, in her 80s, was among 21 people taken to a hospital in neighboring Ishpeming.
Two of those taken to Bell Memorial Hospital died of smoke inhalation or complications from their already fragile health, hospital spokesman Rich Rossway said.
Marquette General Hospital received 49 people, 36 of whom had been admitted, spokeswoman Mary Tippett said.
"They were very scared, very cold," nurse manager Cheryl Moore said.
Displaced residents were taken to a high school that called off classes for the day and to Beacon House in Marquette, a hospitality facility operated by hospital volunteers.
Seventeen residents slept on mattresses or sat in wheelchairs in the high school's gym, where the lights were dimmed. Some ate cereal and eggs provided by the Red Cross, which was trying to arrange temporary housing at a nursing home in nearby Palmer.
Reporters were not allowed in the gym to talk with residents.
"They're very confused and frightened," said Paula Susmark, executive director of the Central Upper Peninsula chapter of the American Red Cross. "You can almost see a deer-in-the-headlights look."
Most of the residents already were outside when firefighters arrived.
"They're kind of in their own little world," said Richard Harvala, assistant chief of the township's volunteer fire department. "A lot of them probably didn't really know what was going on."
Harvala said the fire could have been much worse. The stiff winds that often blow off nearby Lake Superior were calm early Monday, ensuring the blaze did not spread far before firefighters arrived. The temperatures were actually a bit temperate for this time of year.
"Thank God we didn't have nasty weather," Harvala said. "This is warm for us."