Anger and despair as fire at unlicensed India children’s hospital kills seven babies: ‘How will I tell my wife?’

Exclusive: Families tell The Independent that the bodies of seven dead newborns were too badly burned to be told apart, as anger turns on owners and doctors of unlicensed babies’ hospital

Namita Singh
Delhi
Tuesday 28 May 2024 08:05 BST
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Newborn baby Ruhi, pictured here before the fire at home with her parents, is one of seven killed in the blaze
Newborn baby Ruhi, pictured here before the fire at home with her parents, is one of seven killed in the blaze (Supplied by Vineeta Kumari)

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Anger is mounting in India towards the owners and operators of an unlicensed children’s hospital that burned down in Delhi over the weekend, killing seven newborn babies and leaving families struggling to identify their remains.

Some of the babies killed in the fire were so young that they had not even been named yet, and families of the victims told The Independent that they had no way of telling apart the burned bodies, with any identifying documentation also destroyed in the blaze.

Police told The Independent that the fire likely started with an electrical short-circuit before rapidly spreading after several oxygen cylinders exploded. The chief doctor and owner of the Baby Care New Born Child Hospital, which did not have an active fire safety licence, fire extinguishers or a fire escape, have been arrested.

Most of the victims’ remains were taken to the city’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, where The Independent met the family of 15-day-old Ruhi.

She had only a mild fever when she was admitted to the private hospital, and the family were told she should be kept under observation for 48 hours, her aunt Vineeta Kumari said. The morning she was due to be discharged, Ruhi’s family woke up to the news that a fire had gutted the hospital and killed seven babies.

It took Ruhi’s family the whole of Sunday to confirm that their child was among the casualties.

“We read about the fire in the newspaper,” said Ms Kumari, 25, who was yet to receive the charred remains of her niece more than 24 hours later. “They are doing her postmortem.”

“We ran from hospital to police station to the neonatal centre where the survivors had been taken to find out about our baby. But all the paperwork was burnt and there was no way to identify her as the body parts were largely turned to ash,” she says.

“None of the afflicted families were informed by the hospital. We all learnt it through the media or secondary sources.”

Deputy police commissioner Surendra Chaudhary told The Independent that the two-storey hospital was operating without a valid licence. Investigators found burst oxygen cylinders which they believe caused an explosion that quickly spread the blaze.

Ruhi with her parents
Ruhi with her parents (Supplied by Vineeta Kumari)

Ravi Gupta, 54, who lives two streets away from the hospital, was preparing to go to bed when he heard the blast.

“We rushed out of our homes to see the hospital was on fire. Someone said there were children at the back of the building. Everyone was scared to go as they feared more blasts inside the hospital. Delhi Fire Services and police were yet to arrive,” he said.

Mr Gupta and four other men from the neighbourhood broke a window and pulled out some of the babies, saving at least four.

“We helped a guy jump in and he was able to pull out four babies right away. We wrapped them in sheets and they were immediately taken to another hospital. He found another baby later,” he said.

“After 15-20 minutes someone said there were a total of 11 children inside. Our friend jumped in again and got six babies out, but none of them was crying. A doctor from the neighbourhood found a heartbeat in one of them but it was weak. And by the time we took it to the hospital it was too late.”

People from the neighbourhood work to pull out newborn from the hospital
People from the neighbourhood work to pull out newborn from the hospital (Supplied by Anzar Chaudhary)

One of the babies who died was the newborn son of Vinod Kumar Sharma, 35.

“How will I tell my wife, who is still in hospital, that we have lost our child again,” he said, waiting outside the mortuary to receive the body.

The child, yet to be named, was born a year after Mr Sharma and his wife had a stillbirth. He was delivered at around 5am on Saturday in the city of Meerut, about 100km from Delhi, and was brought to New Born Baby Care Hospital by 10.30am.

“He just had a high fever and the doctor advised to have him admitted in a hospital in Delhi,” Mr Sharma said, struggling to hold back tears.

“My sister went to see the baby in the afternoon and all was well. In the evening, I visited the doctor who said the baby was doing fine and they should be able to discharge him within a day.”

At night, he received a call from a staffer at the hospital saying there was a fire.

“They didn’t even mention there were blasts,” Mr Sharma said. “They just suggested that we should go and check on the baby. When I went there, the entire building was ablaze and nobody would tell me anything.”

“We were looking for the baby all day yesterday. How will you identify your half-burnt newborn whom you have not held peacefully even once? The authorities told me only four babies had survived and mine wasn’t among them.”

His wife is recuperating from caesarean surgery in a Meerut hospital. “She does not know that the baby is no more. She keeps on asking about our child, but we do not know what to tell her,” he said.

Fire at Baby Care New Born Child Hospital in Delhi
Fire at Baby Care New Born Child Hospital in Delhi (Supplied by Delhi Fire Services)

Anzar Chaudhary, 40, lost his 12-day-old daughter in the fire. He had named her Fatima.

“I visited her everyday. She had hair like mine,” he said, standing outside the burnt hospital.

“I buried her yesterday.”

“I am here now to meet the other families whose happiness was cut short like mine, so we can together ask for justice,” he says. “I want the strictest punishment for all the individuals responsible for this catastrophe and all those who abandoned the babies.”

Police have arrested the hospital’s owner, Dr Naveen Khichi, on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The hospital’s licence, which was expired, allowed for a maximum of five beds but there were 12 newborns admitted in the hospital when the fire started, according to the preliminary investigation.

Delhi’s government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident and announced free treatment for the injured.

The state’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, has described the fire as “heartbreaking” and said the “causes of the incident are being investigated and whoever is responsible for this negligence will not be spared”.

The office of prime minister Narendra Modi has announced compensation of Rs 200,000 (£1,881) to the kin of each of the seven deceased children.

“The fire tragedy at a hospital in Delhi is heartrending. My thoughts are with the bereaved families in this incredibly difficult time,” Mr Modi said in a statement.

“I pray that those injured recover at the earliest.”

Mr Sharma, however, is furious with the government’s response. “I will give you 10 times the compensation if you return my baby to me as he was,” he says.

The Independent has contacted Delhi’s health minister Saurabh Bharadwaj for comment.

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