Residents evicted by fire
Saturday's fire at Tonganoxie Nursing Center ran like a well-orchestrated disaster drill.
The call went out at 1:59 p.m.: A fire in a commercial clothes dryer.
The nursing home's sprinkler system kicked in, showering flames attempting to escape the dryer. Firefighters were on duty at Tonganoxie's fire station. Within four minutes, the first fire truck arrived at the nursing home.
By then, said Tonganoxie Fire Chief Dave Bennett, almost all of the home's 71 residents had been taken out of the smoky building.
Within another couple of minutes the fire department had eight firefighters and two trucks on scene.
By 2:07 p.m., just eight minutes after the call to 911, the first wheelchair-accessible van arrived.
And within 10 minutes after firefighters arrived, the fire was out.
But that was just the beginning.
More firefighters, from all of the county's fire departments, arrived. They checked to ensure the fire hadn't spread above the ceiling. It hadn't. They began removing smoke from the building. Bennett estimated smoke filled 40 percent of the center, particularly in the south end near the laundry room.
Meanwhile, nursing home staff focused on their first priority, the residents.
Outside, residents waited on the covered driveway, resting in the shade in chairs, wheelchairs and even a bed.
As it was shift change, the nursing home had a double staff when fire broke out -- which meant twice as many personnel were available to help with residents.
"For a disaster to happen it was a most opportune time," said Kim Smith, the center's executive director. "And what's really cool is that day shift -- you've worked and you generally look forward to being able to leave -- they just stayed, they took care of the residents and they just did a wonderful job."
Smith's plans, too, were changed that afternoon. When the fire broke out, Smith, her husband, Mike, and their daughter, Andrea, were at the nursing home and planned to leave within minutes for an afternoon at Worlds of Fun.
Smith, who started her position at TNC June 22, said another fortuitous event was that earlier Saturday morning, nursing home staff had participated in a fire drill.
Once the residents were safely outside, the next step was to move them farther from the building.
Temperatures hovered in the high 90s. Humidity was about 40 percent, and a summer breeze bustled at 20 mph. The shade was cooler than the sun. But nursing home personnel knew the urgent importance of keeping their patients hydrated and cool.
Within minutes, Mike and Andrea Smith, easily foregoing the expectation of a trip to the amusement park, arrived with coolers of bottled water packed in ice, which they and nursing home staffers gave to the residents.
Among those evacuated was 92-year-old Mary Foster, who left the center walking with her walker, steadied by Tonganoxie police officer Billy Adkins.
Foster's daughter, Chris Hadley, Leavenworth, was at the center when the fire broke out.
"They told us there was a fire in the laundry room and then they told us to evacuate," Hadley said. "Then I helped evacuate a few of the residents."
Smith worked with her staff, tending to their dozens of residents. Medical records and meds accompanied the move to the outdoors. Water, shade and wet towels cooled the residents. But there was a sense of urgency.
Fire chief Dave Bennett knew there would be no going back for the residents that day.
"A lot of older people have respiratory issues," Bennett said Monday. "Even though there was no smoke (after the smoke was removed), there still was soot all over, in the beds, draperies. We were not going to expose them to that."
And, in the south end of the building, water from the sprinkler system and fire hoses had left two to three inches of standing water.
Firefighters continued to arrive from throughout the county.
"I'd say at one time we probably had 150 firefighters here," Bennett said.
Tonganoxie police dispatcher Mike Vestal heard the 911 call come in. He knew it was serious.
"When you hear about a nursing home fire, it gets your heart going," Vestal said. "The first thing you think is -- how bad is it?"
And, though Vestal said he knew emergency plans were in place -- at the nursing home as well as with area firefighters and other emergency workers -- he was concerned.
"I don't know how many times you can prepare for or practice for that," Vestal said. "It's just not the same as practicing for the real thing."
Vestal said he knew the TNC residents would have to be relocated.
"We just knew we had to get them out of the building first," Vestal said. "Then the second thing we had to do was get them out of the heat."
Tonganoxie Junior High School, which is air-conditioned, was the choice.
Emergency workers began lining up buses and vans to transport the 71 residents to the junior high. Two yellow Tonganoxie school buses pulled up to the nursing home. Wheelchair-accessible vans arrived. Vestal, who uses a wheelchair, even loaned his van.
And, from his office at home where he operates the Tonganoxie police dispatch, Vestal knew what was going on every step of the way.
He knew what emergency units were on scene, and later, after the residents settled in at the junior high, he knew what volunteers were on scene.
Later in the day, after TNC was finished using his van, Vestal and his wife went to the junior high, to comfort his mother-in-law, also a TNC resident.
There were many volunteers, Vestal said.
"That's what's wonderful about a small town," Vestal said. "People just come out of the woodwork to help."
Chuck Magaha, Leavenworth County's director of emergency management, would agree.
"We could not have asked for a better response, cooperation and coordination in the event," Magaha said. "It reflected back that this county pulls together in the event of a disaster and tries to bring normalcy as rapidly as possible."
But in the case of the residents who could not return to their rooms, regaining normalcy was a challenge.
Magaha said a county employee suggested moving the residents to the county infirmary in Leavenworth. The infirmary is a nursing center whose last residents moved out around June 23, Magaha said.
Equipment -- monitors, even beds, sheets and pillows -- were intact.
Leavenworth County Commissioner Dean Oroke said the county had been losing money on the infirmary and officially closed it June 30 -- the day before the Tonganoxie fire.
A few things had to be checked -- the door locks and security systems, and Oroke went on a walk-through of the facility with TNC's Smith.
"Pretty much it was a go to move most of the residents," Oroke said.
He noted that the facility was set up for about 50 residents.
Officials from Beverly Enterprises, which owns TNC, looked over the site.
"They would have preferred that they be allowed to put the residents back in there at Tonganoxie Nursing Center that night," Oroke said. "It was after 8 o'clock. I expressed my displeasure that we're going on six hours of having those patients being displaced. The time was getting away. It would take a minimum of three more hours to move those people.
Because the Kansas Department of Health and Environment wasn't available for a decision, Oroke invoked his power as chairman of the county commission and decided to move the patients to the infirmary and other area nursing centers.
Here's how the transfers worked: 51 residents went to the county infirmary, eight went to a nursing home in Edwardsville, three to Lansing, three to Spring Hill and six residents went to private homes.
Oroke worked with County Counselor Dave Van Parys, who prepared a "hold harmless" policy for Beverly Enterprises to sign, which would remove the county from liability. Oroke said he knew the county's other two commissioners, Don Navinsky and Clyde Graeber, were consulted beforehand by Van Parys.
Oroke said it made sense to use the infirmary, noting it has a fully stocked commercial kitchen where the meals are prepared for Leavenworth County's Council on Aging.
Once the decision was made and the agreement signed, residents were moved from the junior high.
For the residents, it would be the end to a long day.
"It was 12:35 a.m. when we got our last patient to the infirmary from the junior high at Tonganoxie," Oroke said.
Pull all the plugs
Officials praised one another for the way the disaster procedures operated.
"I have high praise for Kim and her staff and their reaction and the cooperation of everything that took place," Oroke said. "Not only the people there, but when you take in all the fire departments and the EMS and the personnel from all over."
Their swift response was the right thing, he added.
"You don't know what to expect when the alarm goes out in those type of facilities," Oroke said. "You basically pull all the plugs. There were at least two pieces of equipment from every (fire department) unit in the county."
Oroke said at least 250 firefighters helped at the scene and in other areas. He noted firefighters put sheets and blankets on the beds at the infirmary.
And Magaha said other counties helped as well, with emergency crews on standby in case there were another emergency in the county.
And, when residents arrived at their various nursing homes late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, firefighters in those towns were on hand to help them into their new, temporary homes.
Putting to the test
Tonganoxie Mayor Dave Taylor was one of dozens of local residents who helped at the junior high. He saw the cooperation among the various agencies. And he praised what he saw.
Taylor saw the residents come in, the Red Cross provide cots, blankets, pillows and other emergency supplies. He said churches, individuals and businesses brought in food and other needed supplies.
"I think it put us to the test to see if we could do something," Taylor said. "... It was a thought-out matter. It wasn't just thrown together. And everybody did a great job."
On Monday, Bennett took the day off to spend time with his family. He said he felt good about how it turned out, and was especially glad that his firefighters had been able to respond so quickly. He noted the nursing home has patient rooms across the hallway from the laundry room.
"Thank God we had firemen working Saturday," Bennett said. "That was one time it greatly paid off."
- Monday, Leavenworth County commissioners declared a local disaster. Chuck Magaha, the county's director of emergency preparedness, said this gives the commissioners the ability to obtain resources or whatever is needed to bring normalcy to TNC residents.
- Magaha said that included using county buildings, if necessary. He noted 51 TNC residents were moved Saturday night into the recently closed county infirmary. Residents will remain there, cared for by TNC staff, until TNC has been cleared to receive residents.
- Tonganoxie Fire Chief Dave Bennett estimated the fire caused $20,000 to $30,000 in damage.