Victims, many critically ill, suffocated to death in their beds
The gasping voice of 35-year-old Moonmoon Chakraborty awoke her brother just past 4 on Friday morning. “There is smoke all around the ward. I can't breathe,” he heard her say. She was barely coherent but he could sense panic in other voices heard on the phone. He rushed to see her in the AMRI Dhakuria Hospital here, but that call at 4.21 a.m. was the last he heard from his sister.
Film of soot on bodies
While the fire in the hospital raged on, most of the patients, many critically ill, were left in their beds on the upper floors to suffocate to death.
The victims — rows and rows of bodies, covered with a thin film of soot — appeared to be merely sleeping when they were shown to relatives who had been frantically searching for their loved ones in the morning.
“I pleaded with the staff and the doctors on duty to release my father, so that I may take him to another hospital. But they flatly refused, assuring us that the Intensive Cardiac Care Unit will not be affected by the fire,” said Raja Ganguly, son of 67-year-old Jawaharlal Ganguly whose family was there at the time the fire broke out.
While all pleas to evacuate the patients fell on deaf ears, hours later, ambulances started arriving to shift the 164 admitted patients to other facilities.
“They were crowding four or five patients into the same ambulance. We had no way of knowing whether those inside were alive or not. And in the whole confusion, no one knew who was being taken where,” said Mr. Ganguly, who was unable to locate his father's body for nine hours after the fire broke out.
What made matters worse was that there was little information from the authorities on the whereabouts of the patients.
The nephew of 70-year-old Nilima Palit could not find her name despite repeatedly scanning the lists of survivors who had been sent to the five hospitals across the city, and he was asked to go to the M. R. Bangur Hospital. There the family at last located her body but the relatives had to wait until it was brought to the morgue of the state-run SSKM hospital for autopsy.
The road leading to the morgue was choked with vans and ambulances. Even though West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was personally supervising the operations there, confusion reigned at the morgue.
Every now and then an announcement would be made for the family of a victim to bring the death certificate or proof of identity: “The doctors are ready for autopsy.”