The calm evacuation which saved countless lives


Last updated at 01:06 03 January 2008

There were six of them around the blanket, one at each corner and two in the middle. They had it stretched tight like a hammock as they strode down the stairs and into the street, briskly but gently, with an elderly man on board.

You could see his breath when it hit the freezing air.

One of the nurses paused to pull some bedding up over his chest before he was lifted on to a trolley and into an ambulance. They glanced at the pall of smoke turning the London skyline grey and pointed to the flames coming from the roof.

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Then they went back in to rescue someone else.

This was how staff at Britain's foremost cancer hospital dealt yesterday with the biggest emergency of its 156-year history - and helped to avoid what could have been a massive human tragedy.

For despite the intensity of a blaze which took scores of firemen hours to control, not a single life was lost. No one likes to talk about miracles at the Royal Marsden, but against the dramatic backdrop of a raging fire, with the potential to trap hundreds of staff and patients, this couldn't have been far off.

All around them it had been like a scene from a disaster movie. Patients were being wheeled out on trolleys, several with drips and medical paraphernalia still attached. Some had to be wrapped in foil against sub-zero temperatures.

In the street, doctors and medical staff in blue scrubs treated patients on the pavement, some stretched out on mattresses on the paving stones. But the one word that kept cropping up yesterday was "calm". Nobody you spoke to described anything that sounded like panic. Just the textbook, measured response which everyone has come to expect, perhaps, of this world-class specialist hospital.

By the time it became clear how serious the fire was, there was already a fleet of ambulances outside. One by one they took grateful patients away to warmth and safety, like taxis queueing to pick up guests from a New Year party. Fire teams in breathing apparatus swarmed into the building behind them. Meanwhile police cordoned off roads all around the hospital.

St Paul's Church - proudly visible through the smoke like a snapshot from the Blitz - became an emergency refuge centre for evacuees. One woman - in a wheelchair before being transferred to another hospital nearby - told me the last time she did this was as a child during the Second World War.

Bowel cancer patient Janet Lee, 67, was awaiting chemotherapy when the fire broke out.

The grandmother of seven from Ilford, Essex, had a needle and tube inserted into her chest ready for the treatment. But after the fire broke out she had to be rushed out without having the tube removed.

Her daughter Stacey Black, 41, said she was very worried about her mother because blood was spurting out of the tube. "I am on tenterhooks because the doctor was just about to tell us something very important about my mum's treatment and now we don't know what he was going to say."

Carole Williams, 55, said she was in bed in one of the top wards when the fire alarm went off.

Standing in the street in her dressing gown and slippers, the mother of four, who has cancer and kidney problems, said: "I could smell smoke and we were told to get out.

She said the atmosphere in the hospital when the fire started was calm and the staff had just been concerned about getting everyone out safely.

"There was no panic whatsoever."

Long after dark, fire teams were still at the scene and the clatter of a police helicopter overhead remained constant. The view from the air must have been as depressing as it was dramatic - a hospital dedicated to prolonging or saving lives from cancer being eaten away by fire.