x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Most victims of India hospital fire died as they slept

Of the 90 who died in the Indian hospital fire, 86 were patients and four were staff.

A memorial wreath with a note attached is placed outside the Advance Medicare And Research Institute (AMRI) hospital Saturday after deadly fire Friday which killed 90 people in Kolkata, India.
A memorial wreath with a note attached is placed outside the Advance Medicare And Research Institute (AMRI) hospital Saturday after deadly fire Friday which killed 90 people in Kolkata, India.

NEW DELHI //Scores of relatives gathered yesterday to pay last respects to family members who died in Friday's hospital fire that killed 90 people.

They gathered at the Kalighat crematorium in Kolkata to cremate the remains of loved ones in accordance with Hindu tradition.

Most of the victims died of asphyxiation as they slept. Noxious black fumes filled the corridors and rooms of the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) Hospital after fire broke out in the basement before dawn on Friday. Many medical staff fled the scene as the fire spread out of control, leaving their patients behind. Of the 90 dead, 86 were patients and four were hospital staff.

Pradip Sarkar, 37, was in the hospital with his father-in-law when his brother-in-law and he noticed smoke. They left the patient's room on the fourth floor to check with hospital authorities.

"The night manager and two secretaries were trying to contain the blaze with fire extinguishers so we went back upstairs to move my father-in-law out of the hospital," he said.

A doctor told him the fire or fumes could not reach the intensive coronary care unit, where Mr Sarkar's father-in-law was being treated.

"We listened to him and went downstairs again to check, but by the time we got down, the smoke was so thick that we could not go back up again. So we waited in vain outside all night, fearing the worst."

His father-in-law died from smoke inhalation, unable to move from his bed.

Mr Sarkar and his relatives were among those performing last rites in Kalighat yesterday.

"This place was full of families bringing in their beloved, knowing none of us could do anything to save them."

Authorities had warned the hospital in September that the basement was a hazard.

The basement was designed to be a car park but was being used to store supplies, including radiation equipment. No action was taken by the hospital to improve safety, said West Bengal state's chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who revoked the hospital's licence on Friday.

"This is a tragic incident and a criminal offence," said Ms Banerjee, who is also the state's health minister.

The AMRI Hospital - recently rated by an Indian magazine as one of the best in Kolkata - did not have proper firefighting equipment, despite a six-month-old order to upgrade, said Damyani Sen, the joint police commissioner of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

The hospital denied that safety regulations were violated.

Six hospital directors have been charged with culpable homicide, and were ordered by a court yesterday to be held in custody for 10 days while authorities determined the cause of the fire.

The tragedy seems to have been compounded by the slow response of the fire brigade and hospital staff's unwillingness to admit that the fire had gotten out of control.

Firefighters took more than an hour to arrive, then had trouble bringing fire trucks close to the seven-storey hospital building because of the neighbourhood's narrow streets.

Further, residents said hospital guards initially blocked them from trying to enter the building to help rescue patients.

Basudam Kayal, 25, who works as an office assistant and lives near the hospital, said his friends and he tried to break down the hospital's front door after watching a child smash a window and fall to his death from the third floor.

"For as long as I live, I will hear his voice in my head, 'Uncle, save me!' I could not do anything. Even if I had a bed sheet, we could have broken his fall."

Shambhu Manna, 23, who is unemployed, said he and his friends used bamboo scaffolding from a nearby construction site to create a rickety staircase outside that they used to attempt to rescue patients.

"The guards would not let us in and locked us out even when we pointed to the fumes coming out from the side of the building. They said, 'it's a minor fire, we are taking care of it'."

Ramapoda Purokaist, 25, an office assistant with an export-exchange company, said he wished the staff had not fled the scene.

"If they were around, at least we would have known where the exits were, or where the firefighting equipment was stored."

Instead, Mr Purokaist and his friends felt their way through the dark, often stumbling on groups of people who were lying unconscious near the staircases, before lowering them to safety through broken windows, using sheets and curtains as ropes.

Yesterday, most of those who helped with rescue efforts were being treated for minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

"It needs to enter the minds of people that fire safety is important. We should know to look for fire exits and fire equipment when we are in a building," said Mr Purokaist. "It should not be after such a disaster, but before. This has to be instilled in our minds."