“There’s a FIRE!” These words interrupted our family movie night almost three weeks ago (February 9th) as our 11-year-old neighbor burst into our house, holding a lantern high, calling out the warning. Over the next several hours, a fire destroyed one of the buildings of Tenwek Hospital as Heath worked to evacuate patients, and Angela held vigil with several missionary kids ready to evacuate the compound if needed.
After our neighbor’s warning, we quickly stepped outside onto our porch. The first thing we noticed was the sound of screaming and wailing. Living so close to the hospital, it is not unusual to hear wails of mourning when someone dies. But the wails were much louder than a typical mourning of death. Also immediately noticeable was the thick dark smoke in the sky above the hospital, which sits about 100 yards up the hill from our house. Heath left quickly to go check out the situation.
Fire in rural Kenya is a powerful and deadly force. Everyone living here knows it to be so. History has shown fire-fighting capabilities to be unreliable at best, and built-in containment and extinguishing methods are absent. No automatic sprinklers were present to come on. No fire-safe doors were present to close. No fire alarms sounded…only the screams and wails mentioned earlier, which grew louder and louder over the next few hours as villages even miles away saw the increasing flames and joined in expressing their fear and grief. The first fire truck came from the next county, about 2 hours away. When the truck arrived, the water hoses attached to rain tanks in the truck didn’t stand a chance against the inferno.
So when Heath ran up to the hospital, he had no false sense of peace that help was on the way. The building on fire was the first building inside the staff gate. It housed the kitchen, restaurant, several offices (research, statistics, visiting staff, and social work) on the top-level; and laundry, sterilization, and a patient ward (Wound Ward) on the bottom level. Heath saw that the patients from the Wound Ward were almost all evacuated. By this point, the flames were massive. Heath found one of the other surgeons, and they tried to keep people away from the fumes and fire. Attention was quickly turned toward evacuating patients closest to the fire. The orthopedic ward was in an immediately adjacent building, so Heath made his way there to find that the power was out and patients were screaming for help. Although there was no fire in this building, huge flames were easily seen from the windows, and the heat of the flames could be felt by the patients who were stuck in their beds due to their orthopedic injuries. After getting some help, these patients were moved out on stretchers or dragged on mosquitos nets to an area further away from the fire.
While the fire continued to grow, Heath joined other physicians and staff who were starting to evacuate the intensive care units. Knowing these patients well, Heath stayed with these critically ill patients who had been moved to the maternity ward and the recovery room. By the grace of God, there were no patients on ventilators. Efforts were coordinated with a visiting team of pediatric critical care nurses and physicians to get our sickest children under their watchful eye in our recovery room area. This freed Heath up to more closely monitor the intensive care patients who were moved to the maternity ward. He recruited a couple of visiting medical students to help him with these patients. Because there was no advanced monitoring, patients were closely monitored by sitting at their bedside and monitoring their pulses and respirations. Thankfully, all patients did well.
Meanwhile, other physicians and nursing staff evacuated the less critically ill patients to our new eye building. Patients were pushed up hill along a rough dirt and gravel road to reach the eye building which was temporarily converted to a patient ward. Many patients who could walk simply fled the hospital by jumping over fences and making their ways through fields and small farms to get far from the flames. One young patient who was in the hospital getting care for severe burns panicked so much at the thought of being burned again that she ran 2 miles to the nearest small town.
In the eye ward, trouble arose when oxygen began running out. Fortunately, by this time the fire had largely burned itself out, and it appeared that it would not spread to the rest of the hospital. The patients requiring oxygen were quickly transported back to the main hospital wards, which was a dicey event due to a lack of portable oxygen tanks. Again, despite a few moments of desperation, all patients were successfully transferred back. Next, the critically ill patients were transferred back to the intensive care units.
During this entire event, our visiting pediatric cardiac team was operating on one of the most challenging cases of their entire visit. Due to difficulties getting the child off the cardiac bypass machine, the surgery went into the wee hours of the morning. Despite being in a hospital on fire, they continued to operate, and ultimately the child was weaned from bypass and brought to the recovery room well after the last flames had gone out.
While Heath was busy moving patients, Angela hosted a “safe-house” where several families and missionary kids (whose parents were up helping with the fire) hung out waiting to possibly evacuate the compound. Everyone had passports and cash in the car, ready to drive away if the fire began to spread. From our perspective down the hill, we could see only a wall of giant flames, with no knowledge of how much of the hospital was burning. Our sky was filled with thick smoke, the loud sounds of popping glass and tiles, and the African-styled wailing. Cell service was down, so communication was very limited. Rees and Mary Taylor stayed calm despite their fears, and used what they had to help calm the younger children (songs, stuffed animals, prayer, and encouraging words).
We praise God that the fire was contained to one building, and specifically, that the Boiler and Generator buildings were spared. We remain amazed at His protection over patients, staff, and volunteers…NO one was injured! We are grateful for the stone walls and cement floors that likely helped to prevent further spread. Wood fencing, edging and roofing were torn down manually during the fire to also help prevent spread. We are also grateful to all of the staff and community members who bravely fought the fire with buckets of water and small fire extinguishers.
Pastoral staff and a counseling team were on site the next morning, meeting with staff, patients, and community members for post-crisis intervention. Many staff and families have gathered to share their stories with each other and have participated in counseling provided. We have had an incredible outpouring of support from the community, county and national governments, and international partners.
For the current time, Wound Ward has been relocated to the former Eye Ward. Kitchen services have been temporarily shifted to the Tenwek Hospital College of Health Sciences Kitchen. The lower level services of Sterilization, Laundry, and Tailoring were restored within the first week. The offices on the main floor of the building are being relocated to other areas. Therefore, the hospital is back in service!
Tenwek Hospital Administration is now evaluating the best ways to restore services long-term and fulfill the ministry of Tenwek Hospital. Even this week, an engineering and architectural partner will arrive to give input.
THANK YOU to those who stepped in so quickly to contribute financially toward the rebuilding process. Many of you give faithfully already to our ministry here, yet you have responded readily in our time of need. “Thank you” seems so insufficient!
If you still wish to give toward the recovery effort, please give through this link: Tenwek Hospital: Fire Recovery. We hope to have ability to not only rebuild, but to also install some appropriate fire safety and prevention measures throughout the rest of our hospital.
Full healing will take time. Please pray for the patients who came to a place of safety and healing, and instead experienced a terrifying event… for our Administrative staff as they seek wisdom in rebuilding… for our community to continue to pull together in support of one another… and for God to be glorified even in this tragedy. Please continue to pray for our family as we seek to live out the motto of Tenwek Hospital: “We treat ~ Jesus heals.”
Our worship team singing ”Jesus is the Rock” in Swahili the day after the fire in our church which sits a mere 20 feet from the destroyed building. Thank you Jesus for being our Rock! (You might recognize a singer and ukulele player here!)