KOLKATA, Dec 9 (agencies): More than 70 patients in Kolkata`s well known AMRI hospital were killed along with three staffers when a blaze started in the basement of the annexe building early Friday and toxic fumes quickly spread to the other floors, trapping hundreds of people.
The tragedy unfolded over many hours as patients were suffocated to death, some trapped in their beds, others dying in their sleep, too infirm to escape the smoke. The lucky few were brought down the side of the four-storey glass facade building, only six years old, using ropes and ladders as thousands looked on in horror.
The fire brigade allegedly reached late and were initially ill-equipped – coming without masks with only rickety manual lifts – to deal with the disaster.
While hospital authorities said 70 patients and three staffers had been killed, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had confirmed 61 deaths earlier in the day.
As anguished relatives looked for their loves ones, cries filled the air. And over that were the voices raised in helpless anger as families and rescue workers spoke out about how fire brigades arrived at least two hours after 3.30 a.m., when the fire broke out in the basement that stored a lot of combustible material, including gas cylinders and dangerous chemicals.
This is the second major fire in Kolkata in 20 months after the March 23, 2010 blaze at the landmark British-era Stephen Court in the heart of the bustling Park Street claimed 43 lives.
Co-founded by the Emami & Shrachi Groups along with the West Bengal government in 1996, the hospital that was once rated as amongst India`s best is located in the fairly upscale Dhakuria neighbourhood.
On Friday morning, the hospital, which prides itself on its super specialty facilities and attracts several foreigners, turned into a tinderbox as the sealed windows and glass led to the smoke being trapped, making it difficult for people to escape.
`The victims mostly got suffocated from the fumes. Many of them were in a serious condition in the ICU,` Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim said.
`The father of one of my friends was admitted in one of the upper floors. When he heard I am at the spot he called up his son and told him to ask me to rescue him. I could not do anything. I saw his burnt body.`
There are around 200 beds in the affected block. `At the time of the fire, there were 160 patients, including around 40-50, in the ICU. Eighty percent have been rescued,` a hospital spokesperson claimed.
The hospital has two other blocks in the complex.
Through the morning, a steady stream of patients, blackened by soot, were brought out while enraged relatives and locals vented their ire at the state and hospital administration.
`What`s the use of coming now? He is already dead. All are dead. The administration is hopeless, useless,` shouted Pradeep Sarkar. His father-in-law had been admitted there Thursday night with a heart ailment.
He said the sky lift came only around 7 a.m.
`They (firemen) came with manual ladders. Had the sky lift come earlier, many people could have been saved. There are around 160 patients inside. All are dead…so is my father-in-law,` said an anguished Sarkar.
Banerjee rushed to the spot, but only stoked the rage of the people, leading to a near-stampede and police resorting to batons.
`Because Mamata is here, the ambulances cannot go towards the annexe building. Please ask her to shift to another road,` shouted a distraught relative of a victim.
Banerjee tried to cool things down and shouted at police but it was little help.
She went near the relatives and said 40 bodies have been kept at the SSKM Hospital. `Police will take you there. They will escort you there by forming a barricade around you.`
The chief minister said photos of the unidentified victims would be displayed outside the SSKM morgue. `After identification, we will send the bodies in hearses to their homes.`
Promising strict action, Banerjee also promised Rs.3 lakh if family members of the victims, who are not well-off, made an appeal.
The hospital management, who patients said came only several hours after the fire broke around 3 a.m., said they had all fire-fighting equipments in place and did not know what had gone wrong.