Plant explosion puts hospital workers to test

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Plant workers from the Williams Olefins Plant off La. 3115 in Ascension Parish gather at East Iberville High School following a Thursday, June 13, explosion and fire at the plant.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Plant workers from the Williams Olefins Plant off La. 3115 in Ascension Parish gather at East Iberville High School following a Thursday, June 13, explosion and fire at the plant.

Patients poured into the emergency triage center at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, one after another, for hours Thursday morning following the Williams Olefins chemical plant explosion in Geismar, officials said.

Jon Hirsch, the hospital’s spokesman, said he hasn’t seen a catastrophe of such magnitude since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The blast killed one worker and injured 77 others.

“Days like this, thank goodness they don’t happen very often,” Hirsch said. “It’s energy consuming. But by the same token, we also feel blessed to be able to help people in our community.”

The hospital called in employees scheduled to be off and diverted staffers from other departments to help treat at least 36 patients in the immediate hours following the explosion, most of whom suffered minor injuries, Hirsch said.

St. Elizabeth set up a triage center outside the hospital so it could quickly determine which patients had the most urgent needs, get them treated, and then, in many cases, send them home, Hirsch said.

As of Thursday night, 51 of the reported 77 victims injured in the blast had been released from hospitals, said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

Acadian Ambulances Services set up its own triage center at the site of the explosion, where patients were quickly processed and labeled with a green, yellow or red status and then dispatched to hospitals in one of the fleet’s 20 ambulances or four helicopters, said Justin Cox, the ambulance company’s incident commander at the scene.

First responders had to quickly wash off patients in a decontamination center to prevent them from passing on possibly dangerous chemicals to emergency workers, Cox said.

“It was hectic at first, because of the size of the event and the actual boom,” Cox said, noting that Acadian workers, like other first response units, go through mandatory emergency planning and training exercises to prepare for all sorts of disasters.

East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services ambulances were also dispatched to the area to lighten the load for Acadian, which was forced to send out six additional ambulances on Thursday to respond to non-explosion-related emergencies, authorities said.

Hospital officials from St. Elizabeth, Baton Rouge General and Our Lady of the Lake, all of which received victims from the plant explosion, each said they plan well in advance for practically every disaster imaginable, including chemical plant explosions.

“While we always hope that situations such as these do not occur, our trauma surgeons and team are fully equipped to handle events of this magnitude and prepared and ready to serve our patients and the Baton Rouge area community,” said Tomas Jacome, Medical Director of Our Lady of the Lake Trauma Services.

The hospital’s spokeswoman, Kelly Zimmerman, said in a news release that the hospital received 12 patients, two of whom remained in critical condition as of Thursday night.

Doctors treated patients for a variety of injuries, including burns, broken bones and other traumatic injuries, Zimmerman said.

Spokespeople from local hospitals and first response units said despite an uptick in trauma patients from the plant explosion, regularly scheduled medical services did not suffer.

Baton Rouge General Hospital, which houses one of the state’s top burn units, accepted at least 14 patients as of Thursday night, five of whom had been admitted to the burn unit, spokeswoman Nicole Kleinpeter said in a news release.

Floyd Roberts, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said the next 48 to 72 hours are critical for severely injured patients, adding that doctors must primarily focus on stabilizing airways, replacing fluids and treating burn wounds to prevent infection.

LifeShare Blood Centers, a major blood supplier to Baton Rouge General, asked for donors around the state to give extra blood Thursday so it could send more to its Baton Rouge center, said Tina Hooper, a company spokeswoman.

Volunteers met the challenge, and LifeShare shipped additional blood from both Shreveport and Alexandria on Thursday, Hooper said.