Patient, crew safe after Sandisfield ambulance fire

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SANDISFIELD — A patient was pulled from an ambulance Friday afternoon just before a catastrophic mechanical failure and fire that completely engulfed the vehicle and spewed thick black smoke.

No one was injured in the blaze.

The crew from Alert Ambulance Service out of Chicopee smelled smoke about 3 p.m. Friday and pulled the patient out of the ambulance on the stretcher, said Anthony Suffriti, Alert's vice president of operations.

It is unclear what caused the brakes, steering and "everything" to fail just as the crew began smelling smoke while transporting the patient from an appointment back to Berkshire Rehabilitation Center, Suffriti added.

"We don't know the particulars of what the ignition cause was," he said of the fire. "But they were able to get [the van] to come to a rolling stop."

Fearing an explosion from the multiple canisters of oxygen on board, the crew then pushed patient several hundred yards away, he added.

A resident who is an emergency medical technician and local firefighter made attempts to knock the fire down with fire extinguishers, and when that didn't work, he jumped in the back to remove the greatest source of concern — a 100-pound oxygen canister.

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"To prevent pretty much a bomb," Suffriti said. "A couple of small ones were already out of the ambulance. I think everyone did well."

Firefighters from Sandisfield and New Marlborough arrived and extinguished it, said Sandisfield Fire Chief Ralph Morrison. State police were also called to the scene.

Suffriti said the 2008 ambulance model had been through the company's "strict and stringent" maintenance program, which requires a full systems check every 3,000 miles. Ambulances that aren't inspected at that point due to backlog are taken out of service, he added.

And insurance will cover the loss — a new van-style ambulance off the assembly line is about $60,000 before about $50,000 to $70,000 in equipment is added, Suffriti said.

He said the cause is so far a mystery in what he calls a "smart ambulance" for its over 100 sensors between the engine and transmission.

"It's a very smart system," Suffriti said. "It malfunctioned."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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