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TROUBLE IN PARADISE: Investigators Determine What Caused Fatal Hawaii Ambulance Fire

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

In a paradise like Hawaii, tragic events seem out of place.  Even more out of place is when something designed to help a person, save a person even, in fact causes their demise.  Unfortunately, that is what happened to a man on the island of Oahu when the ambulance in which he was being conveyed caught fire due to a faulty portable oxygen device malfunctioning, leading to his death and injuring a paramedic taking care of him.

The paramedic connected a CPAP breathing device to a portable oxygen cylinder, intending to place the CPAP onto the 91-year-old patient, while both were in the back of the ambulance as it pulled up to Adventist Castle Health in the town of Kailua on Oahu’s east coast last month. The paramedic told emergency services that upon connection he heard a “pop,” then saw a bright flash of light before the ambulance filled with smoke and flames. The driver of the ambulance corroborated the paramedic’s account in the official report.

Investigations focused on the oxygen cylinder as the potential cause of the noise and flash of light leading to the fire which killed the patient. Sheldon “Kalani” Hao, Honolulu Fire Chief, told the media that preliminary findings point to a malfunction in the oxygen device as the cause of the fire, but it’s too early to determine specifics. The City of Honolulu reached out to the private non-profit Emergency Care Research Institute for assistance in determining why the oxygen device malfunctioned:

“Based on the preliminary findings of this investigation … the fire is classified as accidental and originated at the portable oxygen regulator assembly,” Honolulu Fire Chief Sheldon “Kalani” Hao said at a news conference. “The exact and definitive cause of this fire cannot be determined within the scope of the Honolulu Fire Department.”

Witnesses captured video of the smoldering ambulance. Local news outlet Hawaii News Now reported thick smoke pouring from the ambulance as firefighters responded, frantically working to put out the flames.” It is believed the 91-year-old patients succumbed to smoke inhalation, while the paramedic who had been on the job for eight years was treated at a nearby burn unit. The ambulance driver was not injured.

While we expect ambulances to be immune from accidents since they are in the business of saving people, they are responsible for deaths, mostly due to crashes.  According to the National Safety Council, the statistics show that:

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  • 180 people died in crashes involving emergency vehicles in 2020.
  • The majority of the deaths were occupants of non-emergency vehicles (56%).
  • Pedestrians’ deaths accounted for another 25%.
  • Emergency vehicle drivers represented 11% of deaths.
  • Emergency vehicle passengers accounted for about 5% of the deaths.
  • The majority of these deaths (69%) occurred in multi-vehicle crashes.
  • Crashes involving police vehicles accounted for the most deaths (132).
  • Crashes involving ambulances follow, (31), and fire trucks coming in third (17).

But nowhere captured within the data is an oxygen device malfunctioning, causing a fire, leading to the death of those in an ambulance. Although the tragedy in Hawaii is a freak occurrence, one can only imagine the pain and guilt the paramedic who was treating the patient in the ambulance must feel, and the shock that first responders are going through as they pray for the speedy recovery of one of their own. Dr. Jim Ireland, Director of Emergency Services for Kailua and the island of Oahu, informed the media of this reality, saying:

“All our paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers are all treasured members of our staff and or family, they save lives every day, and it’s just very hard to be in a situation where our team is the ones who are injured. I’ll just leave it at that,” Ireland said. “Please pray for him.”