Catalin Apostolescu was coming to the end of a 24-hour shift at the Matei Bals hospital when a fire broke out early Friday in a ward treating Covid-19 patients.
Before his shift was ended, six patients had died, all killed in the blaze, the second deadly hospital fire in Romania in less than three months.
Dr. Apostolescu was sitting in the doctors’ room at about 5am when he heard the first screams.
It was the moment he and his colleagues had been dreading. Oxygen consumption has surged since the pandemic began with many patients placed on ventilators and needing oxygen to breathe.
“We’d always been scared about a tragedy like this,” he told Antena 3. “Any spark could set off a fire. All Covid-19 hospitals have this risk,” he warned. The ward where the fire broke out was treating patients with medium and severe forms of the virus.
He described the horrors he witnessed that morning. “A nurse heard a shout and she saw a patient on fire. She put a blanket on him and stopped the source of oxygen, but she couldn’t do it for the others,” he said.
The Matei Bals Infectious Diseases Hospital is one of the best facilities in Romania and one of the best-funded hospitals too, in a country which spends less on health than any other in the European Union.
Romanians were shocked by the fire which came after a blaze in November in a hospital the northeast city of Piatra Neamt that killed 10.
The East European country’s health system is not only underfunded, but plagued by corruption and inefficient and bad management too. President Klaus Iohannis called for urgent health reforms at a visit to the hospital hours after the fire simply “because such things must not happen again.”
Matei Bals has probably treated more Covid-19 patients than any other hospital in Romania where more than 718,000 have had the virus and more than 18,000 have died.
Dr Apostolescu was on the frontline. Considered one of the best infectious diseases doctors in Romania, he was recently named medical director of the hospital.
On Friday he was working the 24-hour shift at the hospital, although as a senior doctor he was not obliged to work the exhausting shifts.
In the predawn hours Friday, the ID physician rushed out of the room where he stayed during his shift and he and colleagues quickly took action: they smashed windows to reach the bed-ridden patients some of whom were on fire and removed others from the fire rolled in blankets.
„I heard a scream, a man’s voice. Then I heard another, it was a woman calling. I went out of the doctors’ room and the hall was thick with dense smoke and I couldn’t see.
“I then made the choice to save people who were in the wards. There were about 8-10 in the ward where the fire broke out.”
He said the fire alarms immediately went off and medics turned off the electricity.
“At the beginning, there was no explosion but after 3-4 minutes I heard a big bang.I went out on to an area there were patients gathered around and tried to open other windows, but I couldn’t force them as they were double-glazing. I tried to get into the building another way, but the smoke stopped me. Meanwhile, colleagues were evacuating patients,” he told Antena 3.
“There was the noise of the alarm and patients’ screams, I was trying to get them out as quickly as possible:’
He said they placed patients on stretchers and in blankets to move them quickly,
Fire ripped through two wards and smoke damaged two others. He said he didn’t know how the fire broke out.
“A nurse went into a ward where the fire was already raging and she couldn’t see very much,” he said. The nurse heard a shout and she saw a patient on fire. She put a blanket on him and stopped the source of oxygen, but she couldn’t do it for the others, “ he said.
“There were three beds in that ward, and patients in all three. The doctor spoke about the lack of heating in the wards, a point of speculation in the Romaniam media. “It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t very cold either.
„All the patients were dependent on oxygen and we told them when they were admitted not to bring external heaters. We brought extra blankets in, but I don’t know about any heaters, “ he said.
There has been speculation that the fire was caused by a heater short-circuiting.
“We’d always been scared about a tragedy like this. The level of oxygen consumption in the whole hospital has gone up incredibly since the Covid-19 pandemic began. We have 2-3 patients using oxygen full-time, 15 – 20, even 30 liters a minute,” he said.
“Any spark could cause an explosion.”