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Friday, December 9, 2011

89 die in Kolkata hospital hellfire: Helpless Patients Suffocated By Toxic Fumes

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 ye
ar 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. 


Hospital staff played down risk, tried to control fire on own 
Call to the fire brigade went very late. First SOS seems to have gone to police who informed fire brigade 
Hospital gates locked, had to be broken down. Firemen had 
no hydraulic ladders to reach the upper floors (no lessons learnt from Stephen Court fire) 
Inflammable goods — including oxygen cylinders & biomedical waste — stored in basement meant to be a parking lot. Hospital had promised to sort it out in Sept 
VIPs, including CM Mamata Banerjee, rushed to the spot since early morning, 
complicating rescue operations 
Worst Infernos 
360 die in fire at annual school event in Dabwali, Haryana on 
Dec 23, 1995 
91 children burnt alive at a school in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu on July 16, 2004 
89 and counting — toll at Kolkata's AMRI hospital on Dec 9, 2011 
64 visitors killed in fire at trade fair in Meerut on Apr 10, 2006 
59 cinema-goers die at Uphaar theatre during the screening of 'Border' on 
June 13, 1997 

Disaster Hours 
1.30am | Patients' kin, slum dwellers nearby see smoke in basement, alert guards 

1.45am | Relatives not allowed to get in, guards say 
they will take care of the 'minor fire'. Patients told to go back to sleep as smoke spreads through A/C vents 
2.10am | Fire brigade called. Slum dwellers tie patients to themselves, climb down ladders 
2.30am | Firemen arrive, spend next 45 minutes trying to break 
open the gates 
3.30am | Fire under control but smoke blinds workers. Firemen move in but it's too late 
6am | First hydraulic lift arrives 
9.45am | Mamata Banerjee arrives. Crowd goes berserk to reach her, police rain blows 
Hospital staffers fled, say victims' kin 
    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. 

    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 a local, Ajoy Das. 
    Although the closest fire station was just about a kilometre away, the first fire truck arrived 30 minutes af
ter 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 shortcircuit. CM Mamata Banerjee 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. 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. Around 9.30am, the last stretcher rolled out and a hush descended.

Grieving relatives outside Kolkata's AMRI Hospital


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