A 64-year-old woman who lit a cigarette while using an oxygen tank has died after being severely burned on Sunday.
Police say Sharon Merrill went outside St. Joseph Tower near 8th and Dorcas streets about 5:45 p.m. Sunday to smoke. When she lit her cigarette, her oxygen tank ignited a fire, according to a police report.
Lois Kehr, who lives nearby, said she was taking a walk around the time Merrill left the assisted living facility. A woman waved her down and told her to call 911 because a woman’s “face was on fire.” Kehr immediately called 911.
Kehr then approached Merrill, who was sitting in an electric wheelchair. Merrill’s face and hair were black, and her clothing was burned, Kehr said. Kehr called 911 again so authorities would understand the severity of Merrill’s condition.
Merrill was transported in critical condition to Creighton University Medical Center, where she later died. Police have scheduled an autopsy.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services says oxygen is a fire hazard and can make flames burn more quickly and at higher temperatures. No one should ever smoke or be near smoke while using oxygen, the health department advises on its website. Oxygen should be kept at lease six feet away from heat sources.
Leah Bucco-White, a department spokeswoman, said state licensing officials review information about incidents at assisted living facilities to determine whether investigations are needed.
In general, state regulations require assisted living facilities to maintain a safe environment for their residents, Bucco-White said. However, facilities vary in the types of services provided. Some supply oxygen equipment to residents. Others let residents make their own arrangements. The level of services is spelled out in an agreement between the facility and resident, Bucco-White said.
In 2013, state officials cited St. Joseph Tower for violating regulations requiring that assisted living facilities admit only those residents whose conditions are stable and predictable.
One of the violations involved a resident with Alzheimer’s disease who had been smoking in his room, despite efforts to keep cigarettes and lighters out of his hands. Facility officials responded to the violation by saying they had created a plan to monitor the resident for smoking in his apartment and to prevent him from creating a danger to others. According to the facility’s response, the resident was discharged after evidence was found that he again was smoking in his room.
According to the inspection reports, none of the violations found that year or in 2014 created imminent danger of death or serious harm to the residents. In both years, the state accepted the written plan of corrections filed by the facility without doing a follow-up visit.
A receptionist said Monday that the executive director of St. Joseph Tower was not available for comment.