The Urban Coroner
Photography By Sugarbomb
The early 20th-century hospital that would grow from a small 16-bed infirmary to a massive multi-building complex in the Norwood neighborhood of Birmingham.
Carraway Hospital | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
Carraway Hospital - originally named Norwood Hospital after the neighborhood in which it was constructed - was founded by Doctor Charles Carraway in the early 20th century. Dr. Carraway first built a small 16-bed infirmary adjacent to his home in Pratt City that he named Carraway Infirmary before moving to the present site in the Norwood neighborhood of the industrially booming city of Birmingham in 1916.
Carraway was contracted with the area's industrial employers to provide healthcare to workers and their families for a monthly fee. Inspired by the success of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Charles Carraway brought in other doctors to practice under one medical group at the hospital.
One of the first sights we encountered in Carraway | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
A nursing wing was added to the hospital in 1949 thanks to a $400,000 federal grant. Nursing school classes were also offered at the hospital, which is where my Great Aunt Pete went to nursing school in the 1940s before going on to work as a surgical nurse in the nearby city of Leeds.
Dr. Charles Carraway passed away after suffering a stroke in 1957 and his son, Dr. Ben Carraway, was appointed as Chairman in his father's place. By this time, the hospital had changed its name to Carraway Methodist Hospital, a name which can still be seen emblemized in gold letters on the dark blue wall stained with black mold in the deepest levels of the hospital.
Under Dr. Ben Carraway’s leadership the hospital grew exponentially over the following decades. The Purcell Wing, which opened in 1957, was the first in a series of major expansions to the hospital which would go on to grow into a 617-bed facility. The $27 million Goodson Building was completed in 1974 and featured Charles Carraway’s 1903 Cadillac on display in the lobby.
In the 1980s, the facility added the area's only Level 1 Trauma Center, a hyperbaric oxygen therapy department, a wound care center, the laser center, the area's first Sleep Center, and 3 LifeSaver Helicopters.
The helicopter program carried 30,000 patients to and from Carraway Hospital and was one of only 5 percent of emergency flight programs in the nation that placed physicians on every flight. The helipads can still be seen on the north side of the hospital to this day, though now shrouded in shrubbery that has grown unchecked since the hospital's closure.
Hospital beds and medical equipment still lay scattered throughout Carraway | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
For much of its history, the Carraway Hospital was segregated by race. During this period in America, especially in the South, segregation was said to have "dictated virtually every element of Birmingham race relations." In May 1961, the then-segregated hospital refused to admit James Peck, a Freedom Rider who had been severely beaten by Klansmen. By 1968, Carraway Hospital was racially integrated, though accusations of racial preference, in hiring practices and otherwise, were made against the hospital well into the 1970s.
The autopsy gurney in the morgue | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
For decades, Carraway Hospital worked in conjunction with Talladega Speedway to provide medical care during racing events such as the Alabama 500 and Talladega 500.
Between April 6 and April 9 in 1998, an outbreak of tornadoes plagued the US, and in these four days a total of 62 tornadoes touched down from the Middle Atlantic States to the Midwestern United States and Texas. This tornado outbreak was responsible for 41 deaths; 7 in Georgia and 34 in Alabama. In the evening of April 8th, the outbreak's deadliest tornado descended upon Jefferson County, eventually strengthening to an EF5 – the highest category in the Enhanced Fujita Scale with winds in excess of 200mph. This devastating tornado cut a 31-mile-long path of destruction through multiple Birmingham suburbs. In the aftermath, many victims were treated at Carraway Hospital, which was spared from the tornado’s wrath, and they remained at the hospital throughout their recovery.
I'm on top of the world! Or at least Norwood... | Photo © 2018 Flowerbomb
Carraway is known for its distinctive revolving blue star, placed on the roof on Christmas 1958. The star, which towers over the surrounding Norwood neighborhood, still remains standing on the roof of the tallest building of the hospital despite years of abandonment and no doubt countless selfies taken by urban explorers (myself included).
The hospital began facing financial difficulties around the turn of the century, when hospital leadership made unsuccessful investments, did not adjust staffing or service lines to reflect diminishing patient volume, or adequately respond to the rapidly changing healthcare delivery environment of the time. In September 2006 the hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and ownership of the facility was placed up for auction. The Birmingham News blamed the institution’s financial demise on the decline of the Norwood neighborhood and "decades of decisions favoring patient care over profits."
After negotiations with several potential buyers, a group of doctors known as Physicians Medical Center LLC submitted a high bid of $26.5 million and the hospital changed its name once more in 2007 to Physicians Medical Center. Despite their efforts, the new buyers could not keep the facility out of bankruptcy and the hospital closed its doors for good on October 31, 2008.
The former owners wasted no time in putting the failed hospital behind them, leaving behind medical equipment, hospital beds, blood specimens still labeled in vials, used needles spilling from overturned biohazard bins in dark hallways, and embalming chemicals on shelves in the old morgue. It looks like the kind of place one would find Nick Clark from Fear the Walking Dead pre-apocalypse, shooting up heroin on stained mattress.
The Walking Dead references were plentiful here... | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb
At the end of a hallway labeled "Office of General Council" above the doorway in gold letters - most of which were surprisingly still there - Kaine and I met two squatters. They were probably not the council that the gilded letters above the doorway had been referring to, but they were helpful nonetheless because they directed us toward the morgue we'd been scouring the bottom floors looking for.
"Follow the blue covered walkway," they said.
They were good-natured and friendly, even offering us a room, saying there was a nice one a few doors down if we needed a place to stay.
"The AC isn't great but you can't beat the rent!" We politely declined.
The atrium at Carraway Hospital | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb