A small group of paramedics, nurses, and firefighters from an eight-person emergency department raced into action after an oil refinery exploded in the remote region of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Eight workers were injured, but they are all expected to survive. Officials say it was a medical emergency that could’ve easily overwhelmed an emergency response team in a major city, but Dr. Etienne van der Linde and his team were able to save the workers thanks to their quick-thinking.
“It was a humbling experience being in a department watching expert people in action,” said van der Linde, the head of emergency services at G.B. Cross Memorial Hospital in Clarenville. “I think the multiple teams in our staff are proud of what they accomplished during this event, and I think they have reason to be proud as well.”
It’s not clear what caused the explosion, but officials say the incident occurred after 4 PM on September 2.
It was the end of a workday heading into a long weekend when van der Linde received a Code Orange: Mass casualties. Be ready for anything.
Dion Park, the senior site manager for the hospital in Clarenville, issued the code after hearing of the explosion. Within minutes, staff started flooding into the hospital to prepare for the heroic response that was about to unfold.
“We had staff that were reporting to work that weren’t supposed to be reporting to work. We had staff staying from the day shift, staff that came in early for their night shift,” Park said.
The first injured refinery workers arrived at the hospital just after 5 PM. The staff couldn’t disclose their exact condition but said multiple patients are being treated for severe burns and flash fires.
Van der Linde said it was a “total team response,” with nearly every healthcare worker in Clarenville helping out.
“We had three ER physicians, an ER nurse practitioner, a surgeon, two general internists, an anesthetist, respiratory therapists, a team of approximately 16 to 20 nurses, X-ray technicians, laboratory and auxiliary resources, which all played a crucial role,” he said.
Despite their best efforts, the team soon realized they didn’t have enough resources to care for all the incoming victims.
They would need to shuttle some of the workers to Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, a two-hour trip by ambulance or 30 minutes by helicopter.
By 8 PM, the staff had stabilized three patients to the point where they were deemed fit to fly, but there was another problem. The helipad at the hospital was too small for the helicopter to land.
Police then quickly blocked off the nearby street to create an impromptu landing pad. Around 45 minutes later, dozens of healthcare workers watched as the three patients were loaded onto the helicopter.
“It was a somber experience. Everyone was thinking about the workers and their families, but the response by the emergency personnel was impressive,” said Peter Troke, a Clarenville resident who was standing nearby. “The clearing of the Sobeys parking lot was fast and efficient, but it also highlights the need for a proper, secure helipad in Clarenville.”
The patients landed at Health Sciences Center just after 10 PM, but the memory will live with van der Linde forever.
“The success of this event involved those teams flawlessly, no questions asked, coming in and being available,” he said. “An important thing for the public — when you need it, the system will spare no resources whatsoever to give you the care you require.”
The moment also put things into perspective for Lauren Byrne, a registered nurse at the Clarenville hospital. It reminded her why she signed up to be a nurse in the first place.
“This is why we can’t walk away from this profession, no matter how bad it gets,” said Byrne. “To see those choppers leave with five stable patients is worth all the double shifts and time away from home. I have never been so proud to be part of this team in the 10 years I’ve been out here.”
Two more patients were transferred to St. Johns facility overnight and the other three have since been released from the Clarenville hospital.
Van der Linde is proud of the care he and his team were able to provide that day, but he says the issue highlights the limitations of rural hospitals all over the country.
“This is an event which brings to your mind how important it is to have rural care facilities open and available to care for you,” he said.
Every second counts when there is a public health emergency or natural disaster, especially when the nearest medical facility is over 100 miles away.
“Rural people matter. They deserve access to emergency care and they have a right to emergency care,” van der Linde added.