The call from an EMS dispatcher came in on an old rotary phone shortly after noon on Sunday, according to staff in the pediatric ER at Jacobi hospital in the Bronx — a 5-alarm fire in the nearby Tremont neighborhood. Nurses were told it was a mass-casualty event, with multiple cases of smoke inhalation.
Seventeen people were ultimately killed, eight of them children, when a fire broke out on the third floor of a 19-story apartment building on East 181st Street. Thirty-four of the 72 people sent to five area hospitals were under the age of 18, according to the FDNY.
Jacobi hospital received 20 of those, according to a spokesperson for NYC Health + Hospitals. Half of them — nine children and one adult – were treated at the hospital’s pediatric ER, said Sean Petty, a nurse at the hospital who was on duty yesterday.
Petty said it was fortunate the hospital had enough staff to deal with the sudden influx of patients at a time when it and other medical facilities across the city have struggled with staffing shortages as COVID-19 cases have surged.
“When I’ve been thinking back on it, after my shift yesterday, I am both very thankful of the luck of our circumstances yesterday in terms of how prepared we were,” Petty said. “And I’m also very enraged that there still isn’t a recognition by our administrators that this situation is so precarious.”
Petty described a harrowing scene with whole families gathered in the hallways and waiting room as some were “crying in pain.” He said the ER had to reorganize staff and equipment on the fly to accommodate everyone and ensure they could be properly monitored. “We had to reorganize elements of the ER to hook a family of three up to oxygen so we could keep them all together,” he said.
One twelve-year-old patient died after arriving at the hospital, Petty recalled. “You just don’t lose that many twelve-year-olds to any trauma or illness very often in this city,” he reflected once he was back at home Monday. “It’s a very difficult thing to see and experience and it’s made even more difficult by what we’ve been through with COVID.”
NYC Health + Hospitals said there were two deaths in total at Jacobi. Five of the patients were still in serious condition Monday afternoon, while the rest had been discharged. “Yesterday's fire was a terrible tragedy, and our thoughts are with the families of those affected,” the health system spokesperson said.
Petty said five nurses were on duty in the pediatric ER yesterday, most with several years of experience. “That is what I can safely call a rare occasion lately,” he said, adding that the unit is typically meant to have seven nurses on staff at the time of day the victims of the fire arrived.
In recent months, hospitals across the city have witnessed a “brain drain,” according to medical staff who’ve spoken with WNYC/Gothamist, as more experienced personnel have left and temporary staff have helped fill in the gaps.
He added that it was also lucky the pediatric ER was not inundated with patients when the call about the fire came in, as it often has been in recent weeks. “I think people are finally starting to get the message that they don’t need to go to the hospital to get every fever treated,” Petty said.
On the other side of the Bronx River Parkway, staff at St. Barnabas Hospital spent much of Sunday treating 20 victims of the fire who came in with severe injuries, said Steve Clark, a spokesperson for the hospital. Another nine patients with injuries that were not life-threatening arrived later in the day. Of the 29 patients, nine died including two children – and seven were transferred to other hospitals for advanced care.
“The omicron situation didn't seem to impact the challenge of dealing with a mass casualty,” Clark said. “Once the alert went out regarding the fire, staff from throughout the hospital came to the ER to treat the patient influx.”
New York City hospitals have seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since last month, with much of the Bronx bearing the brunt of the increase. According to state data, 81% of the intensive-care beds at Jacobi were occupied as of Friday, compared to 74% at St. Barnabas. At Westchester Medical Center, where victims were also taken, all of the ICU beds are full.
Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky and Rosemary Misdary contributed reporting.