89 killed in hospital blaze as fleeing workers 'abandon trapped patients'
EIGHTY-NINE people were killed in a fire at a Calcutta hospital yesterday after staff allegedly abandoned their patients and fled.
Rescuers said many of those who died were sleeping when flames and toxic smoke swept through the hospital's orthopaedic ward and intensive care units. Some suffocated after being trapped by locked doors and windows.
Police arrested six hospital officials on charges of culpable homicide. Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal's chief minister, said a criminal investigation had begun, adding that the owners and management had committed "an unforgivable crime".
They would face "the harshest punishment possible", she said, adding that the hospital's licence to practise had been cancelled. Officials said 73 people died at the private AMRI hospital and another 16 succumbed to their injuries later. There were fears of a radiation leak after the fire damaged the hospital's radiology and oncology department.
Survivors said they were alerted to the fire by screams, and staff seemed indifferent as patients tried to flee in panic from a sealed, air-conditioned and locked building without fire escapes. Television pictures showed frail bandaged patients trussed in rope with faces blackened by smoke as they were lowered to safety by firemen.
One man said his 36-year-old wife, who was being treated for a broken ankle, had phoned him shortly before she died to tell him she could not breathe. She said some of the patients were hobbled by injuries and could not escape.
Subrata Mukherjee, the state minister for public health engineering, accused senior hospital officials of running away after the fire broke out: "It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients."
Sudipto Nandy, whose 32-year-old brother-in-law died, said he blamed the hospital, which denies any violations of safety measures.
"It all ended with such a horrible death. They had locked the hospital from inside preventing the people from going in for rescue," he said.
Firhad Hakim, West Bengal's urban development minister, who was at the hospital during the fire, said he was called by a friend who asked him to rescue his father. "I could not do anything. I saw his burnt body," he said. Sanjeet Kayal, a nearby resident, described "patients asking for help by pressing their hands and faces against windows". Another said their efforts were frustrated because all doors and windows were locked.
Ms Bannerjee's visit to the hospital provoked anger among patients' relatives waiting outside who said her convoy had blocked ambulances taking survivors to another hospital.
Officials said the fire had started at 3.30am in the seven-storey building's basement, which had originally been a car park but was used to store highly flammable materials. Flames spread up through the floors and thick toxic smoke seeped throughout the building from air conditioning and ventilation shafts.
Prakteek Biswas, who was staying at the hospital where his mother was a patient, said he was woken by cries from outside the ward. "Within no time the chaos grew and people started to run for safety, except for the patients," he said.
"The patients were told not to panic by the staff. Within minutes I saw flames and smoke entering the third floor. I managed to take my mother to safety. Most of the patients were in their beds with no staff around to help them."
One patient described how he had learned of the fire when he got up to go to the lavatory in the night. "I heard nurses saying that a portion of the building had caught fire," he said. "But they did not help me. Finally, along with some other patients, I came to a window. The fire brigade rescued me by breaking open the windows." (© Daily Telegraph, London)