Staff 'abandon patients' in Kolkata hospital fire


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The Independent Online

At least 89 people, most of them patients, died yesterday when fire swept through a Kolkata hospital in the middle of the night.

Hospital staff were accused of abandoning patients in their beds and saving themselves. An investigation is underway into the cause of the fire, which apparently started in a basement, and why so many died.

Fire officials denied allegations that they had been slow to reach the scene and that local people had instead led the rescue. Amid growing anger directed towards hospital officials, politicians said many patients had been forced to fend for themselves as fire and smoke engulfed the buildings.

It is believed many died of suffocation. The licence of the hospital has been revoked and the owners have been detained by police. Six officials have been charged with culpable homicide.

"It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients," said Subrata Mukherjee, West Bengal's minister for public health. "Senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out."

The fire at the AMRI hospital, in the Dakuria neighbourhood, started at around 3.30am and was probably caused by an electrical fault, officials said. Security guards initially pushed back residents of a local slum who were trying to raise the alarm, claiming the smoke they could see was coming from a small kitchen fire. However, the blaze soon took hold of the four-storey building. Witnesses said the fire brigade took more than an hour to reach the scene, despite being located nearby.

Relatives of patients trapped inside gathered as firemen used long ladders to smash the windows of upper floors and lowered survivors with ropes. For many, it was too late. Sudipta Nundy said his brother-in-law, Amitabha Das, was being treated for an infection at the hospital. He died by the time rescuers arrived at his smoke-filled ward. "He would have survived had hospital authorities allowed outsiders in early to evacuate the patients," he said.

The 190-bed hospital, which had 160 patients, is reportedly among one of the highest rated in India. "We deeply sympathise and share the pain and agony of the family members of the patients admitted here," said a senior hospital official, Dr S Upadhyay. Few relatives were convinced, pointing out that only a handful of staff were among the dead. The state's chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, has promised a full inquiry.