Eighty-nine people choked to death, many of them in their sleep — some too ill even to move — at Kolkata’s posh AMRI Hospital early Friday morning when thick smoke from a fire in the basement of the hospital spread through the central AC ducting and engulfed the seven floors above.
The scale of tragedy dwarfed the 1997 Uphaar Cinema fire in Delhi (which killed 59) and the 2010 Stephen Court fire in Kolkata (which killed 43).
Firemen, who reached at 4.30am, broke through the double-paned glass façade of the hospital and rescued a few lucky survivors. Many were lowered down from the upper floors in safety harnesses attached to ropes; others were wheeled out on stretchers. But by then, it was too late for a majority of the 160 patients admitted at AMRI. Three of the dead are hospital staffers.
By 8am, the bodies started emerging from the building. Firemen and locals were seen carrying bodies — some on stretchers, their dignity intact even in death. Others didn’t even get that — their bodies were wrapped in white cloth or they were lowered from windows on ropes and piled on the ground floor of an adjacent building of the same hospital. Oxygen tubes and channels for intravenous fluid were still sticking out from their faces and limbs as they lay motionless on the concrete floor.
“The hospital staff were nowhere in sight. All doctors had switched off their phones,” a patient’s relative told HT. And, shockingly, the guards allegedly locked the gates and vanished; so, many patients who could have escaped remained trapped inside.
Incidentally, this was the second fire at AMRI. The previous one, three years ago, had not resulted in any deaths. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds the health portfolio, cancelled the licence of AMRI, one of eastern India’s leading private hospitals. She has ordered a probe into the fire.
And by evening, the Kolkata Police arrested six of the hospital’s directors – including RS Goenka, who is also co-promoter of FMCG major Emami, and SK Todi, also promoter of real estate and financial services group Shrachi – who surrendered before the authorities.
Though the cause of the fire has not yet been ascertained, Gopal Bhattacharjee, director of the fire department, said it was most likely the result of an electrical short circuit in the basement car park, which was being used illegally as a store for combustible material like LPG cylinders, engine oil, PVC pipes, bedding, etc. Kolkata Police said in the evening that it had asked the hospital to vacate the store in July.
“The fire didn’t spread at all and was confined to the basement. But the thick black smoke went up through the AC ducts and spread through the entire building,” he said, adding: “The mechanism to stop smoke from spreading didn’t work.”
A spokesperson for Emami, which has co-promoted AMRI, however, said: “AMRI follows strict fire safety measures and conducts regular fire drills.”
In Delhi, the PM sanctioned ex-gratia relief of Rs 2 lakh each to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each to those injured, from the PM’s relief fund.