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89 die of suffocation in hospital fire, 6 arrested

Kolkata: Eighty nine people, most of them patients in sleep, were today choked to death in a major fire suspected to have been caused by inflammable mateiral stored in the basement of a multi-speciality private hospital here in the wee hours.

Rescue work in progress at the AMRI Hospital where a major fire took place, in Kolkata on Friday morning. APThe fire in the basement of AMRI Hospital in South Kolkata’s Dhakuria locality was first noticed by local residents at around 3.30am who rushed to the gates but were stopped by security guards.

The fire spread swiftly and the poisonous smoke was sucked by air conditioning ducts that carried it through the rooms of and the corridors of the seven-storeyed hospital located in a densely-populated area.

Most of the victims were asyphixiated to death.

Except four hospital staff, the rest were patients most of whom were not mobile. Among the dead were an 80-year-old cancer patient and Congress leader Ajoy Ghosal and a 65-year-old Bangladeshi national Gauranga Mandal.

The patients struggled to find their way out in the smoke-filled buildings with flames leaping from the floors below as the hospital staff were said to have fled.

Locals alleged fire tenders arrived on the scene nearly two hours after the blaze started.

Six members of the hospital board, including leading industrialist S K Modi, were arrested on charges of culpable homicide and negligence, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who visited the hospital, told reporters.

The fire-ravaged hospital presented a ghastly sight as bodies lay strewn on the floor of an operation theatre on the second floor of the main building while anxious relatives milled around hoping desperately that their near and dear ones were not among them.

Most of the deaths were caused by suffocation, Fire Service and Disaster Management Minister Javed Khan told reporters.

Kolkata Police Commissioner R K Pachananda said 89 people–85 patients and four hospital staff–died in the incident. All but four bodies have been identified and handed over to their relatives.

There was no clarity on what triggered the fire but the combustive material in the basement lead to the spread of the flames.

The nearest Lake police station was first informed at 4:10 am with the fire brigade arriving at the AMRI Hospital at Dhakuria within ten minutes, Disaster Management Minister Javed Khan said.

“Smoke was carried through AC ducts”, he said.

As smoke billowed out, firemen using snorkel ladders with platforms smashed windowpanes in the facade of the building to rescue patients trapped inside the ICU, ICCU, Intensive Therapy Unit and Critical Care units.

The firemen evacuated patients with pulleys from the upper floors as they were not in a condition to be taken down by ladders put up by the fire brigade all around the building.
Banerjee, who visited the hospital, ordered a probe. She also directed cancellation of licence of the hospital.

“As per my announcement that offenders will be apprehended, six persons, including S K Todi, have been arrested,” she said.

Besides Todi, R S Goenka, Ravi Goenka, Manish Goenka, Prasanta Goenka and Dayananda Agarwal on the board of the hospital were also arrested.

The six have been charged with negligence, culpable homicide not amounting to murder and attempt to culpable homicide, a senior police official said.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sanctioned ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each to the kin of the dead and Rs 50,000 each to those seriously injured in the accident from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund and West Bengal government announced Rs 3 lakh for next of kin of the deceased. AMRI Hospital announced a compensation of Rs five lakh for next of kin of the dead.

Javed Khan said “the basement of the hospital housed medicine shops, a car park, hospital waste and the oncology department for which permission was not obtained.”

Even the rear building of the hospital was an unauthorised structure, Khan alleged.

Khan said a team of National Disaster Rescue Force arrived from Madhyamgram and checked the basement for radiation, but found no leak.

Additional Director General, Fire Services, D Biswas said the fire brigade arrived on time but relatives of the victims alleged there was inordinate delay in the rescue operations.

Biswas said patients who died were admitted in the critical care and orthopaedic units and were unable to move.

Khan said the fire spread because of stocks of highly combustible material and though it was controlled the smoke caused problems.

The hospital also did not have proper fire-fighting equipment, he said.

AMRI vice-president S Upadhyay, however, contended the hospital had proper fire-fighting equipment and licence and fire drills were held regularly.

But, the ADG Fire Services said,if proper fire fighting arrangements existed at the hospital, such a blaze could not have taken place.

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