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Pasco hospital's challenge: a storm, a lightning strike and fire, no power and 209 patients to evacuate

HUDSON — With only the illumination from their cellphones and flashlights to lead the way, the staff at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point on Wednesday night undertook the enormous task of evacuating 209 patients after a lightning strike started a small roof fire and knocked out the hospital's power.

"Worst-case scenario," hospital CEO Shayne George said after the evacuation was completed Thursday. "When you're in the dark and you don't have any power for any system."

It was a complicated operation that took six hours, the hospital's entire staff plus dozens of firefighters from three counties. It also required more than 70 ambulances and three ambulance buses — summoned from as far away as Orlando.

The hospital, located at 14000 Fivay Road, won't readmit patients until Monday at the earliest. Bringing them back, though, won't be nearly as hard as it was getting them out.

The ordeal started when lightning struck the hospital's roof about 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, George said, while the storm that would become Hurricane Hermine was lashing the region. The strike started a fire along the roofline that damaged the electrical system, killing the power.

When the emergency backup generators came on, electricity flowed through the damaged wiring, the CEO said, causing a "safety issue." The staff had to turn off the backup power and call for help.

The challenge they faced: evacuate every patient, including those in the intensive care unit, in the dark, without elevators, while a tropical storm approached.

The first to go were the patients in critical condition and those in intensive care. Life-support equipment has its own backup battery power, but they last a limited time.

"That's why we made the call (to evacuate)," George said, "because we weren't sure how soon we'd get the power back."

Patients were evacuated based on the severity of their condition — the worst went first. The elevators were out of service, so crews had to strap patients to stretchers and carry them down from the upper floors.

Once on the ground floor, patients were shuttled into ambulances. Pasco County Fire Rescue sent out a statewide request for aid. Ambulances came from as far as 100 miles away from agencies in Orange County, said Pasco County spokesman Doug Tobin.

Cecile Hundley was in the cardiac surgical unit at Bayonet Point on Wednesday night. She was scheduled to undergo a heart catheterization, in which doctors thread a camera into the heart through an artery in the leg, at 7 p.m.

Instead, the lights went out about an hour before her procedure. She saw people using flashlights in the hallway.

"It was kind of dramatic," Hundley, 81, said.

Since she was in a first-floor room, workers were able to wheel her straight to an ambulance. She was one of 49 patients taken to Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville, about 17 miles north, where she plans to undergo the procedure today.

Medical Center of Trinity, about 13 miles south, received 31 patients. Northside Hospital and Memorial Hospital of Tampa each took in 26 patients. The rest were split among Morton Plant North Bay Hospital in nearby New Port Richey, St. Petersburg General Hospital and Brandon Regional Hospital.

No one was injured in the fire, and no patients were hurt during the evacuation.

"I never saw any type of frantic, chaotic behavior," Hundley said from her bed at Oak Hill. "It just seemed so well organized. It was as though they planned it."

Health Corporation of America, which owns the hospital, was able to get a 2,000-kilowatt generator to the hospital about an hour after it lost power. That was enough to turn some lights back on, but not enough to restore power to the whole complex.

Many details of the evacuation have yet to be worked out, however, such as who will foot the bill for all those ambulances. It was unknown if patients would be on the hook for expenses related to the evacuation, such as being treated at different hospitals.

"We'll definitely pay our share, of course, to all those EMS providers that helped out through that process," George said.

Full power was restored to the hospital Thursday thanks to hospital engineers and Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative electricians. But state law prohibits the hospital from taking in patients without backup power, and George said getting that back online won't be done until Monday.

Meanwhile, workers spent Thursday cleaning the hospital while a lone ambulance was parked outside the emergency room, ready to rush any patients who show up at Bayonet Point to another hospital.

George said that during the evacuation, the hospital sent its staff and medical records along with the patients taken to other hospitals. Surgeries were cancelled until further notice.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @josh_solomon15.

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