First Person: I worked 36 straight hours at the Alta Bates burn center during the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm

Thomas Appleton writes about how Alta Bates staff treated dozens of burned patients while watching the fire approach the hospital.

Thomas Appleton. Courtesy of the author

During the Oakland-Berkeley Firestorm, I was the unit secretary for the Alta Bates burn center.

The morning of Oct. 20, 1991, I was enjoying my Sunday coffee at home in South Berkeley with my wife. We noticed the smoke from the very start of the fire, coming from the same location as the fire the day before. When we went outside to see it more clearly, we could see the flames licking around the top of the hill and already a couple of houses looked like they were in imminent danger, if not starting to burn. I called my colleagues working at the burn center to see if they had gotten word of the fire and if there was any need for me to come in to help out. At that moment, they were still having a quiet morning. I hung up and tried to get my video camera ready to take a video of the fire. I had no sooner gotten back outside with my camera then my wife called out to me that the burn center was calling and needed me right away.

When I got to the unit some patients had started to arrive from the emergency room downstairs. This would be the beginning of one of the longest, most harrowing 36 hours of my life, before or since. I didn’t leave the hospital until Monday night.

The first wave of patients were, fortunately, relatively minor burn injuries. They had gotten themselves to the ER and were from the area where the fire started. For an hour or two, this seemed like all the victims we were going to get. By noon, we started to get word that the victims from the Charring Cross bottleneck were on the way. These patients were much more seriously burned than the first wave. The hospital was placed in crisis mode. We had to transfer the less seriously burned victims to other areas of the hospital to make way for the second wave of patients. At one point, our six beds were full, and there were less seriously burned patients on gurneys in the hallway, even some in our small operating room. Eventually, this was all sorted out and there were something like 60 patients admitted to the hospital. Many, thankfully, were able to be discharged the same day. The most seriously burned victims were hospitalized for months.

“I would walk down the hall to see for myself the monster slowly swelling towards us.”

At the same time we were furiously juggling the onslaught of patients arriving at the burn center, we were also in the path of the raging fire. In the afternoon that Sunday, the hospital crisis management team sent word out that there was a possibility we may have to evacuate the hospital! That notion was almost too drastic to even process. Every so often, I would walk down the hall to see for myself the monster slowly swelling towards us. We could see the flames edging towards the Claremont Hotel. Someone remarked that if the hotel burned, we would have to evacuate. The fire line held and the hotel was safe. So we were too!

Many of the hospital staff were also residents of Oakland’s Hiller Highlands and the portions of the Rockridge and Montclair districts that burned. I remember a colleague who lived in the area close to the fire’s origin coming into the burn center covered in dirt and scratches but offering to lend a hand. His house had burned to the ground and he had only one way down the hill: through the brush. All the roads were enveloped in billowing flames.

My primary job was to handle all of the contact between the rest of the hospital and the outside world. At the same time I was still doing all the other things in my job capacity: transcribing doctor’s orders, contacting different services to initiate a treatment or service, etc. My bank of phone lines was constantly ringing. I can still hear myself answering the phones: “Burn center, please hold!” At one point, I had the secretary of health call from Washington. By the afternoon, the administration had gotten a team triaging phone calls at the hospital switchboard. The chaos was still off the charts even though I was now mostly dealing with internal communications between different departments.

By Monday evening, things had slowed down enough that I was able to go home for some rest. I walked out the side door on Ashby and looked up at the burned hillside. All the streetlights were out, but there were still small fires where each house had been, sort of like seeing the campfires from some scout jamboree as seen from the distance. Walking home was almost anticlimactic but it also gently relaxed me and helped sooth my battered mind and body.

Thomas Appleton worked at the Alta Bates burn center from 1979 to 1994 and later became an anesthesia technician. After retiring from Alta Bates in 2017, he moved to Arizona. He is grateful for the hard work of Dr. Jerold Kaplan and the other health care workers who rallied together during the firestorm.