Five patients who died in Joplin hospital suffocated

JOPLIN, Missouri (Reuters) - Workers at a hospital hit by a tornado in Joplin, Missouri on Sunday describe a storm so terrible that every window blew out and the building lost power, causing the deaths of five patients on ventilators.

A refrigerator baring a woman's name and the word 'hospital' lay strewn about with the debris of a neighborhood totally destroyed by a devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri May 23, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone )

“We could hear sounds of everything whipping around,” said respiratory therapist Debra Holmes at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, who huddled in a stairwell with three other employees. “It seemed like it lasted ten minutes and that it was never going to stop.”

The storm sucked a power generator out of the hospital, leaving the building without power and without oxygen for patients, said registered nurse Sandy Woods. A back-up generator did not work, Woods said.

The massive tornado killed at least 118 people in the southwest Missouri town and left many more missing.

Minutes before the storm arrived, hospital officials announced “condition gray” -- hospital code for the approach of severe weather.

Blankets were placed on windows and some patients were taken into hallways, workers said.

Registered nurse Donna Hughes, who arrived at the hospital later, said another nurse told her that everyone’s ears popped and all the windows blew out before the tornado got there.

Hospital spokeswoman Joanne Cox confirmed that the five patients who died were on ventilators and their deaths were caused by the loss of power to the building and the ventilators.

Another unidentified person, also died, but the cause of his death was not known, Cox said. There were 175 staff in the building at the time of the storm, and there were no staff fatalities, Cox said. There were 183 patients in the hospital, said Hughes.

After the storm, patients were helped down darkened stairways to the main level where a triage area was set up outside, Woods said. From there, patients were transferred to other hospitals.

“Everybody was walking around dazed and soaking wet,” Woods said.

Reporting by Kevin Murphy and Megan Gates; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune