Hospital fire kills at least 84 in eastern India

KOLKATA, India, (Reuters) – A fire tore through  a seven-storey private hospital in the eastern Indian city of  Kolkata before dawn yesterday, killing at least 84 people, most  of them intensive care patients who were asleep and suffocated  in the fumes.

Thick smoke engulfed the crowded hospital and  fire-fighters smashed windows to evacuate people down ladders  and with sheets from upper floors. Other patients were wheeled  out on trolleys.

Rescue workers and locals criticised a lack of  safety equipment and said staff fled the scene leaving windows  and doors locked. The hospital had been warned there was a fire  hazard months ago, state officials said.

“My sons and I rushed to the hospital and started breaking  the windows so that some of the smoke would escape,” said  35-year-old Saraswati Mondal, who lives in a crowded shanty town  near the clinic in south Kolkata.

“As we broke the windows we could hear the patients crying  out for help,” said Mondal said.

The fire broke out in the basement and flames and  smoke quickly spread through the building through  air-conditioning shafts. Witnesses said the fire brigade took an  hour to arrive. Police arrested six of the hospital’s directors  for negligence.

By mid-morning, the flames were under control and rescue  workers had begun to bring the dead from the still-smoking  building, including at least two children whose bodies were  covered by green blankets, a Reuters witness said.

Kolkata’s Joint Commissioner of Police Shivaji Ghosh said 84  people died in the incident, Indian news agency PTI reported.
West Bengal’s fire service head Javed Khan said the hospital  did not have proper fire-fighting equipment.

The vice-president of the AMRI hospital, in a mostly  middle-income area of Kolkata, told reporters at least 73 people  died in the blaze, all but three of them patients.

He said 90 more were evacuated and that the hospital  complied with statutory safety rules.
“The fire was detected at 3.30 (a.m.)…we called the fire  brigade within five to 10 minutes,” S. Upadhyay told a news  conference.

Angry local residents accused the hospital authorities of  reacting too slowly and not helping patients to safety, and  pointed out another fire had broken out there three years ago.  That time there were no casualties.

Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was for years  the capital of British-ruled India. It is one of South Asia’s  largest cities, known as much for literary culture as for  cramped slums. It is now the capital of West Bengal.

“It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not  make any effort to rescue trapped patients,” Subrata Mukherjee,  West Bengal’s health minister told cable network NDTV.

The state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, immediately  cancelled the operating licence for the hospital, part of a  prominent chain of clinics in the city.

“Law will take its own course. Those responsible for so many  deaths will be dealt with seriously,” Banerjee told reporters.
Shares in the conglomerate that partly owns the  AMRI chain, Emami Ltd, fell 2.3 percent to 390.95  rupees yesterday.

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