Hospital where 91 died in fire was told months ago to upgrade safety

Seven directors of private clinic in Calcutta face charges of culpable homicide

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The Independent Online

A private hospital in eastern India where dozens of people died in a fire on Friday failed to update its safety procedures despite being ordered to do so months ago. Most of the victims died in their beds from inhaling smoke that filled the rooms and corridors of one of AMRI Hospital's three buildings after fire broke out in the basement and medical staff fled the scene. One more person died yesterday, raising the death toll to 91.

Also yesterday six hospital directors were charged with culpable homicide, and were remanded in custody for 10 days while authorities investigate the cause of the fire. A seventh director also charged was to be brought before the court after being treated in a hospital for smoke inhalation.

Authorities had warned the hospital in September about the basement, where radiation equipment and other supplies were stored, but no action was taken to improve safety, according to West Bengal state's Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, who revoked the hospital's licence. "This is a tragic incident and a criminal offence," he said.

Police also raided hospital directors' and administrators' homes and offices in their investigation. Those charged face up to seven years in prison if convicted. A defence lawyer told reporters outside the court yesterday that he had not been given a chance to request bail.

The AMRI Hospital – recently rated by an Indian magazine as one of the best in Calcutta – did not have proper firefighting equipment, despite a six-month-old order to upgrade. There were also no emergency exits, and all fire alarms had been switched off, a West Bengal governing party MP, Kalyan Banerjee, told the court, according to Press Trust of India. Mr Banerjee, who is unrelated to the Chief Minister, also noted that it took 50 minutes for the hospital to inform police of the blaze. The hospital denied that any safety measures were violated.

Authorities are still trying to determine what caused the blaze, but said no radiation leak had been detected. Witnesses say many medical staff abandoned the hospital's 160 or so patients and fled. Firefighters took more than an hour to arrive, and then had trouble bringing fire trucks close enough to the seven-storey building because of the neighbourhood's narrow streets. Local residents said hospital guards initially blocked them from trying to help with rescuing patients. "Finally, we forced our way in," said 18-year-old Babu Sona Goldar, one of the first to enter the building. "If we had been allowed to go in earlier, we could have saved a few more lives."

Rescue workers on ladders eventually smashed windows to reach patients on the upper floors, and most survivors were taken to a nearby hospital, although yesterday at least 25 of the most critical patients were still being kept in AMRI Hospital's main wing, which was unaffected by the blaze. Medical workers said, however, that they had received no information on moving them or instruction to do so.

Journalists were barred yesterday from entering the hospital complex, where broken glass and shattered furniture lay strewn about. Walls had been plastered overnight with political party posters demanding that victims be compensated and that guilty parties be punished.

Flowers were placed on the pavement outside the complex, where the state-owned Insurance Corporation of India set up temporary kiosks to help relatives handle any claims. Safety regulations are routinely ignored at Indian hospitals, with few having fire stairways or holding evacuation drills. Even if fire extinguishers are present, they are commonly several years old and never serviced.