Despite an undertaking, hospital basement was not cleared of hazardous substances

The two devastating fires in the space of 20 months — the March 2010 blaze, which claimed 43 lives at Stephen Court, and last Friday's inferno at the AMRI Hospital, Dhakuria, in which 93 patients died — have shocked the city, but as the tragedy repeated itself it is evident that lessons have not been learnt.

In the wake of the Stephen Court disaster, a high-power committee comprising senior officials of the city police, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, the West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services department and the power distribution company was set up to inspect 48 buildings and market places in the city and make recommendations to curb violations of fire safety norms. But the panel suggestions have hardly been implemented so far. In the tragedy at the AMRI Hospital, the basement, where the blaze is suspected to have originated, was meant to be a parking lot but was being used to store materials, several of them inflammable — a clear violation of building and fire safety norms.

 Hospital authorities had submitted a written undertaking on August 29 that the basement would be cleared of all hazardous substances, but their failure to do so cost 93 lives. Moreover, one of the directors, who has been arrested, admitted in his statement to the police that the fire alarm system was switched off because it went off.

The differences between the two tragedies lie only in details. Even before the flames were brought under control at Stephen Court, there was an outcry over the long wait for the victims as fire tenders took a long time to reach the spot. At AMRI, the hospital staff failed to inform the fire brigade of the blaze — it occurred in the early hours — for hours, until after the situation had got out of hand.

 Trapped on the upper floors of the burning building, most of the victims at Stephen Court were consumed by the flames and the bodies charred beyond recognition. In the hospital, nearly all the victims suffocated to death inhaling the noxious fumes that rose up from the basement and through ventilation channels, and quickly engulfed the building.

 Soon after the Trinamool Congress-led government assumed office, it was brought to the attention of the new Minister for Fire and Emergency Services that safety air cushions that were available with the fire brigade at the time of the incident at Stephen Court were not used. A departmental inquiry was immediately launched and the findings have been submitted to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

However, on the issue of ensuring safety of citizens, the focus appears to be on finding fault, instead of on preventing fires. .

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