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Friday 6 January 2012

Criminal negligence and flagrant violation of fire safety norms cause more than 90 deaths in a private hospital in West Bengal.


Fiery trap
Criminal negligence and flagrant violation of fire safety norms cause more than 90 deaths in a private hospital in West Bengal.

A patient being rescued from the AMRI Hospitals in Kolkata when a fire broke out there.
DEATH came stealing in the wee hours of December 9 to AMRI Hospitals, Dhakuria, a prestigious private hospital in south Kolkata, and claimed more than 90 lives in a major fire disaster. There were 164 patients in the annexe building of the hospital when a fire broke out in its upper basement. The toxic smoke rose rapidly up the six-storeyed building. As the windows of the centrally air-conditioned building were sealed, there was no exit for the smoke to escape. This left the inmates completely helpless. Local youth, alerted by the cries and desperate signals from patients, tried to help, but they were turned away by hospital staff who claimed that the situation was under control. It was a disaster that was precipitated by the negligence and callousness of the hospital authorities.
The fire apparently broke out a little before 3-00 a.m., but the Fire Department was alerted only at 4-10 a.m., and that, too, by a relative of one of those trapped in the building. According to police sources, hospital staff wasted more than 90 precious minutes by trying to douse the fire on their own. By then thick smoke had spread, killing trapped invalids and convalescents.
The staff, it appears, were reluctant to call the fire brigade immediately because in an earlier instance an employee of the hospital had been suspended for calling the fire brigade without authorisation from the higher authorities when a minor fire broke out in the hospital precincts. Police sources said that the higher authorities of the hospital had been alerted by the staff long before the fire services were called.
“There was complete violation of all fire safety norms in the building,” said D.P. Biswas, Additional Director General, Fire Services. The basement, which was meant for car parking, was used for various purposes, including housing a pharmacy, a biomedical department and a storeroom. According to the preliminary report prepared by the Fire Department, combustible materials kept in the basement prolonged the fire and added to the toxicity of the smoke.
Subsequent investigations showed that a disaster of this scale could have been averted had a mandatory precaution been followed and a vertical fire stop installed in the building. In centrally air-conditioned buildings, the vertical fire stop seals off the maintenance shaft at every other floor to prevent air from passing through and spreading to the other floors.
According to Damyanti Sen, Joint Commissioner (Crime) of the Kolkata Police, smoke and fumes went up the shaft to the upper floors as these vertical stops were not in place. Moreover, the fire also prompted the authorities to switch off the mains, which stopped the air-conditioning. Lack of air circulation in the sealed building hastened the death of those inside. Police sources also suspect that the smoke alarms in the hospital had been switched off; it is not known why.
Investigations have revealed what the police called “active omission” on the part of the hospital authorities. On September 5, the hospital had given an undertaking to the Fire Department that hazardous materials would be removed from the basement. “We have found that in a board meeting held sometime in November, after the hospital had given an undertaking to the Fire Department, a resolution was taken to look into the issue of safety measures,” said Damyanti Sen. However, the issue of safety continued to remain ignored.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who holds the Health portfolio, said, “It is a criminal offence. It is a crime.” The police arrested seven directors who were allegedly involved in the day-to-day functioning of the hospital: Shrachi Group chairman S.K. Todi, Shrachi director Ravi Todi, Emami vice-chairman R.S. Goenka and Emami directors Prashant Goenka and Manish Goenka, AMRI director R.S. Agarwal and its executive director Dayanand Agarwal. S. Upadhyay, senior vice-president and the hospital's safety committee chairperson, and Sanjib Pal, administrative officer, have also been arrested.

LOCAL YOUTH SUCH as the one in the picture came rushing to the hospital when they heard of the fire and began rescue operations. The toll would have been lower had the hospital authorities and security staff let them in earlier.
Mamata Banerjee cancelled the hospital's trade licence. The patients in the other buildings were shifted to various other hospitals.
The death toll would have been lower had the authorities and the hospital security staff not refused the aid volunteered by the youth of the nearby slum who came rushing to the hospital the moment they heard of the fire. “My friends and I rushed to the hospital around 3-00 a.m. There were people screaming inside and flashing the light on their mobile phones and banging desperately on the windows, signalling for help,” Biswajit Chakraborty, a local resident, told Frontline.
He and four other youth then approached the security guards, only to be turned away. “Meanwhile the screams from inside were getting louder and it was impossible for us to remain mute spectators. So we climbed up the building from the back side with bamboo ladders,” said Biswajit. Risking their own lives, they saved five people. One of those who came forward to help, Shankar Maity, had to be hospitalised soon after, having inhaled the deadly fumes.
“It was terrifying inside. It was pitch dark with suffocating smoke everywhere, and we could see people lying around and heard others gasping from unseen corners,” said Biswajit. He said many more lives could have been saved had more youth from the neighbourhood been allowed to enter the building. Biswajit, a construction worker, is at present unemployed.
Biswajit's words are borne out by 77-year-old Anjali Mitra, a patient on the third floor of the hospital and one of the survivors. “It was the people from the slums who saved me and many others. We received no help from the hospital staff,” she told Frontline. She said that when the local people told the trapped victims that they were not being allowed to come in, some of the patients pleaded with them to “enter forcibly”.
“As we were choking, the hospital staff kept telling us not to worry and that everything was under control; at the same time we could hear screams of the people from the floors below,” she said.
She and the other patients on her floor managed to break one of the thick glass windows, and it was perhaps that little opening which kept them alive. It was past 4 a.m. when the local rescuers carried her down to safety.
Among those who died that day were two nurses, Remya Rajappan and P.K. Vinita, who hailed from Kerala. They lost their lives while saving eight patients in the women's ward.
All other staff members, curiously, were unscathed in the tragedy. Most of them, according to reports, fled the scene as soon as they sensed danger.
The scene outside the hospital was also traumatic. The trapped patients had called their near and dear ones on their mobile phones and hundreds of them had gathered in the narrow lane leading to the hospital. They were helpless as they could not get in or get any information on those inside. One by one, their phone calls to those inside went unanswered, and their plea to evacuate the patients fell on deaf ears.
The police estimated that more than 3,000 people had gathered outside AMRI that morning. Their apprehension turned to grief and anger as the bodies began to be brought out. People scrambled among the corpses to look for their loved ones. Among those frantically searching was Paritosh Sen from Tripura, whose brother Santosh had been admitted in the hospital. Nine days after the incident, on December 18, Sen had still not traced his brother.
As the morning progressed, the situation turned more and more chaotic until the Chief Minister herself arrived on the scene and took charge of crowd control.
The tragic irony is that many of the victims had fought off serious aliments and were on their way to recovery. Krishna Chakraborty, 62, had undergone a successful brain operation and had practically recovered when the accident claimed her life. “I had spoken to my mother just the day before and she was fine, and then this happened,” said her son Bhaskar Chakraborty. Then there were those who had come with very minor problems. “Criminal negligence” turned an institution designed to save lives into one that destroyed lives instead.

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