‘No answers’ to patient’s death in hospital fire

MYSTERY surrounds the death of a wheelchair- bound man who suffered horrific burns in a Dublin hospital fire.

Stroke victim Percy Hopkins died within days of his wheelchair going up in flames in the Royal Hospital, Donnybrook.

An inquest heard the 60-year-old was left with burns to 35% of his upper body after staff discovered his clothing was on fire.

Despite undergoing emergency surgery at St James’ Hospital, he died within days from shock and sepsis on May 3, 2005.

Dublin City Coroners Court was told that a lighter and burnt magazine were discovered on a nearby bed-top table, but there was no evidence to suggest that Mr Percy had been trying to light a cigarette.

His family today demanded more answers on his death, criticising claims it was accidental.

Mr Hopkins brother Kevin Hopkins and sister Nancy Fowler questioned how, due to his disabilities, he would have been able to hold down a lighter, how the fire started on his left hand side when he was right handed, and why he was he not able to alert staff.

“We believe the staff were changing shift and were not where they said they were,” said Mr Hopkins. “We want to know how long he was burning before the staff got there. Someone from the fire department should have been here to tell us how bad the fire was to cause his injuries.

“We have asked about what medication he was on and whether he was too sedated to save himself, but we can’t get any answers.

“I feel the gardaí accepted the staff’s version and presumed straight away that this was an accident.”

Mr Hopkins, of Powerscourt, Mount Street, Dublin 2, had been a brother with the White Fathers and worked as a missionary in Africa for six years.

Ms Fowler said her brother suffered horrific injuries. His ears had melted, his face was swollen and his hands were black.

A post mortem exam recorded severe burns to his left hand, arm, check, neck, face and shoulders.

“We do not feel like we have come away with any answers,” she continued. “We were told he needed 24-hour care, that’s why he was in hospital and not in a nursing home.

“He was strapped into the chair and if something fell in to his lap, he wouldn’t have been in a position to put it out himself. If somebody was with Percy that night, he would be alive today.”

Two other patients in the same ward were also unable to alert staff due to their physical disabilities.

An investigation found the seed of the fire was in the left hand side of the wheelchair and no accelerant or cigarette butts were found. Gardaí ruled out the possibility that foul play or a third party was involved.

Care assistant Vivien Rosario said staff were at the nurses’ station at 8.15pm on April 29 when the fire alarm sounded and a control panel behind the desk indicated the fire had started in the adult disability unit.

“I saw flames coming from his clothing,” she said on seeing Mr Hopkins. “I wrapped a blanket around him and a duvet around him. I saw paper burning in front of where he was sitting and poured water over it.”

As staff lifted him from his chair, more flames shot up from behind him. They put him on the floor to put out the flames.

The inquest heard if Mr Hopkins wanted to have a cigarette, he was always taken to a smoking room or outside. Conflicting evidence from care staff said although his cigarettes and lighter were kept in his bed-side locker, it was hospital policy not to allow any patient to have both cigarettes and lighters on their person.

Recording a narrative verdict, Dublin City Coroner Dr Brian Farrell said the incident probably was accidental but there were no witnesses to prove it and no evidence of unlawful killing or self-inflicted death. He called on the hospital to review its smoking policy.

“If a cigarette was found, we would have the answer,” Dr Farrell said. “We do not precisely know how the fire occurred.”

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