The fire began shortly before 6:30 p.m. in a second-floor mechanical room at the Mount Sinai Medical Center and spread to a first-floor emergency room, Fire Department of New York spokesman Frank Dwyer said. The fire was confined to the mechanical room; its cause was unknown.
Flames in the Manhattan building were visible from the adjacent Madison Avenue, said Janet Montero, a manager at the nearby One Fish Two Fish restaurant.
Firefighters said 600 patients were removed from the east wings to the west wings of the 12-story hospital, which has nearly 1,200 beds, as they searched the building. The patients had been on the third through 11th floors.
Hours later, patients who had been forced to flee were being allowed back to their floors, a hospital spokesman said in a statement.
Jesus Ochoa, 43, a patient awaiting a surgical procedure Friday, was spending time with his family in his eighth-floor room when an alarm went off, said his daughter, Jessica Ochoa.
"Then the smoke comes," she said. "The smell was strong, like something was burning."
Four to five minutes later, smoke was everywhere, and "we couldn't breathe," she said.
A nurse initially told the family members it was safer to stay in the room than to leave, but a hospital staffer then instructed them to put wet towels across their faces and led them to the ground floor of a nearby building, Jessica Ochoa said. She said she saw one nurse faint and another sob during a brisk but orderly evacuation.
Wrapped in a blanket and a hospital gown in a lobby more than two hours later, Jesus Ochoa said, "I want to go back. I want to do my surgery."
Patients, employees and visitors milled in the hospital's lobbies, looking for information.
Visitor Ellen Marakowitz still had none after about an hour of circling through the hospital's various entrances, trying to ascertain the whereabouts of her 88-year-old mother, Helen Marakowitz, who was hospitalized with a broken hip and pneumonia.
Her mother's aide had called to say there was a fire, smoke had spread to the area of her mother's eighth-floor room and the two were being moved.
Marakowitz, who rushed to the hospital from her Manhattan home, said she had spoken to a hospital employee but hadn't located her mother.
"I'm sure she's fine, but it would be nice to know where she is," Marakowitz said. "My mother's 88, and the aide is terrified, so I'm not just going to ignore them."
Mount Sinai was founded in downtown Manhattan in 1852. It has been in its present spot, occupying four square blocks on the Upper East Side, since 1904.
Service on four bus lines in the area was disrupted, the city's transit agency said. Four buses were used for evacuation and staging efforts, it said.
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