KOLKATA: One of Kolkata's better-known super-specialty hospitals turned into a gas chamber in the early hours of Friday after a basement fire pumped toxic fumes through the centrally-air-conditioned building. At least 89 of the 164 patients have died and over 50 were injured, some of them seriously. Three staff members at the Advanced Medicare & Research Institute (AMRI) hospital in Dhakuria are among the dead.
Most of the fatalities were in the ICU (intensive care unit) and ITU (intensive therapy unit), where patients choked to death, still hooked to life support systems and in wards where people lay immobilized with broken limbs in casts. Most others died a horrible slow death, banging on the glass walls and desperately sucking in air from cracks in the windows, as the hospital staff kept the gates locked and refused to let local residents and the victims' kin mount a rescue operation.
Locals say at least one patient jumped to his death, bringing back memories of the Stephen Court tragedy last year when many young techies jumped off the burning building on Park Street to die on the pavement.
The 190-bed AMRI hospital, among the expensive ones in the city with an impressive roll of specialists, had another fire in 2008. Still, fire prevention equipment had not been installed. Sources say that more recently the fire department had objected to the inflammable goods stored in the basement, designed for a parking lot, and wanted it removed. The hospital, built over seven levels, sought three months for this but did little. Nothing happened.
And the fire department did not bother to ensure that the basement was cleared. The criminal callousness proved to be the death sentence for 89 patients.
All the deaths were due to suffocation, which means that many lives could have been saved, had the rescue effort started earlier. The fire department was informed 40 minutes after the fire had started. Victims' kin and locals said the hospital staff fled, leaving the patients to their fate. But the management denies this and claim employees saved many lives.
According to sources, the hospital staff initially played down the risk and tried to tackle the fire on their own. Residents of a nearby slum and patients' kin saw smoke billowing out of the basement around 1.30am and alerted the hospital security, who asked them not to bother.
"The guards said it wasn't a big deal and refused to react even when the smoke became denser. Soon, we could hear thumps from the upper floors and looked up to see patients banging on the sealed windows. Still, the security staff would not budge. We pleaded to be allowed into the compound so that we could rescue the patients but in vain," said Asit Haldar, one of the first to raise the alarm.
There are reports that some patients woke up on smelling smoke but were told to go back to sleep. The smoke was so intense that slum dwellers could feel their lungs burning in their homes but the hospital staff took their time calling for help. A precious 40 minutes were lost. The SOS to the fire brigade went at 2.10am. By then, locals and patients' kin had run out of patience and stormed into the campus to start a rescue effort on their own.
Bamboo ladders were brought out of homes. Young men wrapped their faces in wet cloth and started climbing up to the panic-stricken patients. Initially, the rescuers would tie patients to their bodies and bring them down. But when the situation grew more desperate, they started making hammocks out of bedsheets to bundle the patients and throw them to waiting arms below, say witnesses.
"It was pitch dark and the smoke scorched our lungs. We rushed into the wards close to the stairs and pulled out any patient who could move," said another local Ajoy Das.
Although the closest fire station was just about a kilometre away, the first fire truck arrived 30 minutes after the alarm was sounded. It didn't have hydraulic ladders to reach the upper stories. The slum ladders also fell short of the third and fourth floors. Most of the deaths happened here. Patients in suites, cabins and intensive care units had no chance.
The disaster would have assumed colossal proportions had the fire affected radiation therapy equipment in the lower basement, just below the seat of the fire. Lakhs of residents in a 5-km radius around the hospital were at risk but thankfully there was no radiation leak.
Fire services minister Javed Khan said the fire was triggered by a short-circuit. "There was a fire here in 2008, and we will have to probe how the hospital authorities got their fire licences renewed," he said.
The state government too cannot shrug off its responsibility because it has a 1.9% stake in AMRI and the director of medical education is its chairman. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee abruptly cancelled the hospital's licence, without thinking of the patients admitted in the other block and the survivors who were shifted there. She asked the police to book the owners and management staff. "They will be arrested. We will take strict action against the hospital," Mamata said.
Joint commissioner of police Damayanti Sen said that six directors of AMRI Hospital-Shrachi Group chairman S K Todi, Shrachi director Ravi Todi, Emami vice-chairman Radheshyam Goenka, Emami directors Prashant Goenka and Manish Goenka and AMRI executive director Dayanand Agarwal-were arrested from their homes. They have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, apart from many other non-bailable sections.
Hydraulic ladders arrived at 6am but then firemen encountered a bigger challenge: thick glass panes that took 15-20 blows to break. "There were only a few windows in washrooms. We did try to rescue some patients through them but it was very tough," said a fireman.
Around 6.30am, police commandos and BSF's disaster response teams arrived. With gas masks on, they plunged into the smoke-filled building and rescued around 50 patients. By 7.30am, those that were destined to live had already been stretchered out and admitted to other hospitals.
For the next two hours, only corpses emerged, faces blackened by soot and turned blue by asphyxiation. One body-probably of a teenaged boy-left rescuers shocked. It was wrapped in a soot-smeared bedsheet. There was horror frozen in the eyes and the lips pursed tight.
Around 9.30am, the last stretcher rolled out and a hush descended. Exhausted, rescue workers dropped to the ground. The killer smoke continued to hiss out from the shafts below.
Kolkata's AMRI hospital turned into a gas chamber in the early hours of Friday after a basement fire pumped toxic fumes through the centrally-air-conditioned building. At least 89 of the 164 patients have died and over 50 were injured.