06/12/2012 10:11 EDT | Updated 08/12/2012 05:12 EDT

Stanley Cup riot tested hospital's disaster plan

One lesson stands out among the many that were learned by staff at St. Paul’s Hospital during the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot one year ago — the institution’s disaster-response plan worked.

The evening of June 15, 2011, started out unusually quiet at the city’s only downtown hospital.

Most people in the city — including just about everyone at the hospital — were glued to televisions watching the Canucks battle the Boston Bruins in the seventh and deciding Stanley Cup game. It was not a night anyone expected to have to initiate the disaster plan, or “code orange.”

The hospital’s British-born emergency operations leader, David Brown, wasn’t a hockey fan and was at home watching a movie when he got an urgent text message just as the game ended that said fans were lighting cars on fire.

By the time Brown got to St. Paul’s, police had closed road access into downtown.

“There were a lot of people on Burrard [Street]. We could see smoke starting to rise over the city,” said Brown. “At that point, I think we realized we could have a lot of casualties come in.”

When the hospital got word police planned to use tear gas, a security perimeter was set up outside the emergency room to make sure patients didn't wander in and inadvertently contaminate the whole hospital.

Clinical Nurse Leader Rick Reaney jumped into a decontamination suit and headed outside to help hose down people caught in the tear gas.

“In the hospital, there are people with airway issues. [Tear gas] can cause an asthma attack. If you don't decontaminate people, it can cause a secondary reaction, even in people who haven't been directly sprayed,” Reaney said.

Triage nurses were also stationed outside to help whisk more serious cases inside.

Range of injuries

Normally, St. Paul’s ER sees about 240 people over a 24 hour period. On the night of the riot, staff treated 147 patients in two hours.

Injuries ranged from collapsed lungs to fractures and head injuries. Some patients appeared to have taken part in the riot deliberately. Others got caught in it and couldn't leave.

“The thing that upsets me, you meet people who quite clearly were minding their own business — got a broken jaw. They are going to be off work, miss time,” said Reaney.

The pressure of the sudden volume of patients was alleviated by dozens of doctors, nurses and other hospital employees who came in to help, even if they weren’t on duty.

But getting to the hospital wasn't easy, said clinical nurse leader Christina Graham.

“[A] male nurse who came in riding his bike. People on balconies were throwing bottles at him as he rode his bike by,” Graham said.

Cocooned inside the hospital until the wee hours of the morning, Graham admits she didn't have a good sense of what had unfolded.

When she finally got home, her husband showed her TV recordings what she had missed.

“Seeing the faces of some of the people that I’d had as patients during the night, and actually seeing them get injured to see them get injured on camera ... made it feel more real.”

Graham said the riot showed that all the dry runs and training were worth it.