50 years ago: Carson City rallies after hospital fire
It was Aug. 28, 1968. Carol Park, an emergency room nurse, was on lunch break speaking by phone with her husband Richard, a Carson City firefighter, when she heard the alarm at the station go off. The couple quickly hung up.
“We had no idea the call was coming here,” said Park.
Park was working at Carson-Tahoe Hospital, a 15-bed facility opened in 1949 on a five-acre parcel donated by Richard and Ethel Waters. Under construction next door was a new building to replace it, now thought of as the old hospital after the Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center opened in 2005. Today, it’s the Carson Tahoe Specialty Medical Center.
Around noon on that summer day 50 years ago, a woman bringing lunch to her husband, another hospital employee, saw smoke on the roof and reported it.
“The fire actually started right over the ER room and surgical area, in the east end of the hospital,” said Park.
But, inside, Park and others were unaware until fire engines arrived.
“I remember looking out back and seeing the fire truck pull up and pretty much simultaneously the fire chief told us we had to evacuate,” said Park.
Thirty patients were quickly moved, most to Capital Convalescent Center on Highway 50, now Carson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where a makeshift hospital was up and running within four hours, according to a Nevada Appeal report at the time.
At least one patient had been in surgery when the fire broke out and was sent to another hospital.
“I remember one lady was anesthetized in Carson City and she woke up in Reno,” said Park.
Park and others set up an emergency room across the street in vacant doctors’ offices where they saw less severe emergency cases, such as lacerations and broken bones, for the next three months until the new building was finished and opened in November.
“Dr. (Richard) Grundy was with the National Guard and got us a MASH,” or mobile army surgical hospital, said Park. “We never stopped working.”
Obstetrics was moved temporarily to the infirmary at the Stewart Indian School, where the sister of Park’s daughter-in-law was the first baby born there.
Bernard Sease, the city’s first paid firefighter who was deputy fire chief of the then four-year-old department, remembers the day, too.
“I was one of the first firefighters on the scene,” he said. “There was a goodly amount of smoke.”
Sease said as he recalls no fire protection and hospital equipment helped spread the fire across the attic.
“Oxygen was run through copper piping soldered together and the pipes came apart so the oxygen was being injected into the attic fire,” he said. “That caused it to burn much more rapidly than it would normally.”
In the end, no one was hurt and the building suffered mostly from water damage, but was unsalvageable. The loss in building and equipment amounted to about $400,000, according to Jack McGlade, hospital administrator, quoted in the newspaper at the time.
The fire’s cause?
“I don’t remember the final outcome, but I think I’m 95 percent right in what I’m saying,” said Sease.
As he recalls, the contractor building the new hospital was burning construction debris when the winds picked up and embers jumped to the shake roof of the existing building.
What both Sease and Park remember vividly is the outpouring of support during the whole disaster.
“The thing that stays in my mind the strongest is the community rallying around the hospital, moving people, getting equipment out, helping the firefighters on the outside, people everywhere volunteering to do things and seeing they got done,” said Sease, who went on to become fire chief and retire in 1990 after 36 years with the department, including the first 10 years as a volunteer.
“It is probably the most I ever saw the Carson City community come together in a major emergency. It was very gratifying to see that.”
“It was a community effort,” said Park. “It is a summer I’ll never forget.”