Jose Rodriguez  /  AP
Costa Rican firefighters help evacuate patients from a fire at the Caleron Guardia Hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Tuesday.
updated 7/12/2005 6:25:34 PM ET 2005-07-12T22:25:34

A pre-dawn fire swept the top floors of a hospital in Costa Rica’s capital Tuesday, killing at least 18 people as it engulfed the central staircase of a building without adequate fire exits or a sprinkler system.

Medical personnel smashed their way through windows as they tried to help patients escape, while some of the sick fled on their own. People could be seen on live television climbing onto ledges of the five-story building or tying bed sheets to window frames to lower themselves to safety.

One of the victims was identified as nurse Patricia Fallas, 42, who was helping patients evacuate the fifth floor when she died of smoke inhalation. She was holding a lit flashlight when her body was found, Fire Chief Hector Chavez said.

The fire — the second this year at the 62-year-old Calderon Guardia Hospital — raised questions about safety precautions in other medical facilities throughout the Central American country.

Three stories burn
The 2:20 a.m. blaze broke out on the fifth floor and quickly spread, consuming the top three stories until it was brought under control three hours later, the fire chief said. He said least 14 people died on the fifth floor.

The fire affected the neurosurgery and men’s surgery departments. Some of the hospital’s 522 patients hid under their beds.

“I was with my mother on the fifth floor ... it was terrible,” said Luz Marina Chinchilla, sobbing. She was able to escort her mother safely out of the building.

Dr. Eduardo Saenz said he smelled smoke and carried one patient out in his arms.

Officials feared the death toll would rise as the search for victims continued, Costa Rican Red Cross official Alexander Poras said. Survivors were taken to other hospitals.

The cause was not immediately known. Costa Rican news media reported that a gas leak was believed to be the source, but Chavez would not confirm that, telling The Associated Press the investigation was ongoing.

Poorly equipped
Like most other medical facilities in Costa Rica, the Calderon Guardia Hospital lacked an adequate evacuation plan. It also lacked safety measures required under recently implemented national fire regulations — including fire hoses, emergency lighting, and a fire escape.

The hospital alarm system failed to sound, and two small staircases designed for evacuations reached only to the third floor. Fire fighters and Red Cross rescue workers used hydraulic ladders to evacuate people.

“This is a case that should make people think,” Chavez said. “Unfortunately, this building did not have the proper fire prevention tools.”

Calderon Guardia is one of Costa Rica’s main hospitals, receiving patients from all over the country. In January, a small fire broke out in the building but no one was injured. The hospital’s fire alarms also failed to work then, officials said.

State of emergency
The only hospital with adequate fire-detection equipment in Costa Rica is the Alajuela Hospital, inaugurated last year in the city of the same name, about 10 miles northwest of the capital, Chavez said.

The president of Costa Rica’s state health system, Alberto Saenz, said he would ask President Abel Pacheco to declare a national emergency in the state hospital system.

Pacheco downplayed the lack of safety measures at the hospital, however, during an early-morning visit to the facility to survey the damages. The president had been treated at the same hospital for high blood pressure last month.

“I am shaken. This is a painful scene and it is terrible,” he said. “But Costa Rica can relax and be proud of our hospital system. ... There’s no need to look for a fly in the ointment.”

Pacheco acknowledged that “the system has defects” but added that Costa Rica “is a poor country and we can’t do everything with excellence.”

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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