Woman Dies on Operating Table After Freak Fire


A woman who underwent emergency surgery after being hit by a car died early Monday while on an operating table at UCLA Medical Center when cloths that had been draped about her body mysteriously erupted in flames.

Neither medical administrators nor Los Angeles fire officials could explain what may have sparked the freakish blaze, which burned out of control for a brief time after medical personnel were forced to evacuate the smoke-filled operating room.

Authorities identified the dead woman as Angela Hernandez, 26, of Los Angeles.

While fire damage was limited to the room in which Hernandez died, the medical center’s 15 other in-patient operating rooms were shut down for the day to be sterilized and inspected by staff. Patients in need of emergency surgery were directed to other Los Angeles-area hospitals.


“I’ve been here six years,” said Rich Elbaum, a medical center spokesman, “and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

A similar incident occurred in October, 1988, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, when a flash fire killed a 15-day-old infant as he underwent surgery to repair a defective heart.

That fire, which was immediately extinguished, broke out when an electrical spark from a pen-like surgical tool, called a cauterizer, ignited gauze pads on the baby’s body. An investigation found that the Cedars-Sinai fire had been fueled by highly flammable oxygen that may have leaked from a plastic breathing tube inserted in the infant’s mouth.

Elbaum acknowledged Monday that engineers at UCLA Medical Center were checking oxygen lines, electrical circuits and other equipment that serves the center’s complex of operating rooms, which is located two floors below ground. He declined to speculate whether equipment failure may have played a role in Hernandez’s death.

“We just don’t know at this point,” he said. “We are conducting a thorough investigation.”

Fire officials are expected to announce the results of their investigation today. Hernandez suffered massive heart and liver injuries at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday, when she was struck by a car while standing on the rain-slicked transition road from Ocean Avenue to Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, Santa Monica police said. She apparently was trying to warn approaching motorists of her disabled car when a driver slammed into her car, which crushed Hernandez.

Hernandez was taken by ambulance to the medical center where she lost consciousness soon after arrival, according to Pat Marek, a Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman.

At about 5:30 a.m., after surgeons had finished operating and were preparing to wheel Hernandez out on a gurney, Marek said, “the sheets and blankets somehow caught fire.”

Elbaum said it was surgical “drapes"--sterile cloths that are placed around the area of the body operated upon--that initially ignited.

Medical center and fire officials said that operating room staff tried to extinguish the flames, but without success. As doctors and nurses retreated, campus police arrived. They, too, were unable to get into the room because of thick, choking smoke, officials said.

Westwood-based firefighters were summoned and gained entry by 5:35 a.m. The firefighters were equipped with hand-held, water-filled extinguishers, but apparently had little need for them.

“There was some drapery material smoldering on the floor near the edge of the operating table, but the fire was basically out,” said Battalion Chief Chuck Merriman, whose five units responded to the scene. “The fire wasn’t even hot enough to set off the sprinklers in the ceiling.”

He estimated property damage at $40,000.

Claude Boucher, a supervising investigator with the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, said an autopsy on Hernandez’s body will be done this week to determine the cause of death.