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Hospital officials in India arrested after 89 die in fire

Suryatapa Bhattacharya

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NEW DELHI // Six hospital officials were arrested for culpable homicide after four staff members and 85 patients and their relatives died in a fire yesterday at their Kolkata facility.

State officials said most of the hospital staff fled the burning seven-storey building, abandoned the patients and failed to alert the fire and rescue department after the blaze started in the basement at 3.30am.

At least 85 patients and their visitors died of suffocation from smoke, some of which crept through the air conditioning system. There were 160 patients in the 190-bed AMRI Hospital at the time.

"It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients," said Subrata Mukherjee, West Bengal state minister for public health engineering. "Senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out."

Authorities say they have not yet determined the cause of the fire.

As rescuers scrambled to evacuate survivors, police accused the hospital of violating safety procedures. Among the six arrested were, RS Goenka, of the Emami Group, and SK Todi, of the Shrachi Group, on charges of culpable homicide. The Emami Group and the Shrachi Group are co-owners the hospital.

"It's a very serious offence, and we will take the strongest action," Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, said.

Bengalis living in New Delhi were outraged. In Delhi's Chittaranjan Park market, Kiron Nag, a parking attendant, said this is not the first time he has heard of a hopsital disaster from his hometown of Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta.

"This is years of infrastructure neglect and mismanagement that is now showing up," he said. "This has gone on for so long, I am not sure who we can blame anymore when something like this happens."

Authorities revoked the hospital's licence. Ms Banjeree said the facility had received repeated warnings in September from fire and safety officials who found flammable materials such as oxygen cylinders, old linen and radiation equipment being stored in the basement. Hospital officials were ordered to clean the basement.

Scientists from Mumbai's Bhabha Atomic Research Centre were at the scene yesterday to check for radiation leaks.

The hospital officials expressed regret over the deaths, but denied they, or their staff, was at fault.

The loss of life was "extremely unfortunate and painful", but the facility strictly followed safety measures, said Satyabrata Upadhyay, a senior vice president of the AMRI hospital company.

He promised to give 200,000 rupees (Dh14,000) to the relatives of the dead.

The expensive AMRI private hospital was rated one of the best hospitals in the city in 2011 by The Week magazine, an Indian publication. However, safety regulations are routinely ignored at hospitals throughout India.

Firefighters on long ladders smashed windows in the upper floors to pull trapped patients out before they suffocated, while sobbing relatives waited on the street below. Rescue workers took patients on stretchers and in wheelchairs to a nearby hospital.

Moon Moon Chakraborty, who was in the hospital with a broken ankle, called her husband, S Chakraborty, at home to tell him the building was on fire.

"She had died by the time I reached the hospital," Mr Chakraborty said.

The fire was first noticed by people living in a slum close to the hospital, according to witnesses. Some of them rushed to the hospital and raised an alarm, but security guards kept them back, saying there was a small fire in the kitchen and there was nothing to worry about. As the smoke enveloped the building, the slum dwellers joined in the rescue effort.

It took firefighters more than an hour to arrive after the blaze started, said Pradeep Sarkar, a witness.

The narrow streets in the neighbourhood apparently made it difficult for fire trucks to get close to the building and for firefighters to bring in the big hydraulic ladders needed to evacuate those trapped inside.

Patients and relatives complained that hospital staff did little to help and that smoke detectors failed to go off.

Sudipta Nundy, who lives in Kolkata, said her brother-in-law Amitabha Das was being treated for an infection at the hospital. He died by the time rescuers arrived.

"He would have survived had hospital authorities allowed outsiders in early to evacuate the patients," Ms Nundy said.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press

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