At least 90 people were killed in a fire that ravaged a hospital here in the early hours of Friday. Most of the victims choked to death on the upper floors, even as the toxic smoke engulfed the building.
The fire broke out around 3 a.m. in the basement of the seven-storey building of the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) Hospitals at Dhakuria. Soon the smoke swept through to the top, threatening the lives of the 164 in-patients.
Amid frantic cries for help, some youths from the nearby locality joined in the rescue, pulling out those still alive, long before firefighters reached the spot. The death toll would have been less had the hospital authorities allowed them in to evacuate the patients earlier, the locals claimed.
“Most of the victims died of suffocation. The building is centrally air-conditioned, and there was no ventilation channel for the smoke to come out,” a Fire officer said, even as desperate firefighters smashed the glass windows to let the fumes out. The basement where the fire started housed a pharmacy, a central storeroom and the biomedical department, all containing inflammable articles, he said.
Heroic Kerala nurses
Two nurses of the female general ward, from Kerala, saved eight of the nine patients in the ward, but the valiant ones perished in the heat and smoke.
Some relatives of the patients broke down as news of the death of their loved ones came in, while the rest frantically searched for their kin, scanning the list of the deceased.
Trepidation rose as the hospital authorities informed the firefighters of the presence of a biomedical department in the basement, where radioactive material for treatment of cancer patients was stored.
An official of the National Disaster Response Force said: “We are trying to find out whether the fire has reached the radioactive material.” No radiation leak had so far been detected. However, the hospital authorities later denied that any hazardous material had been stored in the basement.
Six directors of the hospital have been arrested and the institute will be sealed once the rescue operations are over, said West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who visited the hospital as well as the morgue at the state-run SSKM Hospital, where the bodies were taken.
“The hospital authorities did not inform the Fire Department about the incident. It was the local police station that made the call at 4.10 a.m.,” Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Javed Ahmed Khan said.
In all, 28 fire-tenders and three sky-lifts were pressed into action and the blaze was put out late in the afternoon. The survivors were shifted to five hospitals.