Tragedy struck the eastern Indian city of Kolkata early Friday, when a blaze in a top private hospital claimed at least 89 lives. The tragedy occurred when a fire started in the basement of the building, causing smoke to engulf the nursing home. Most of the deaths are said to be due to asphyxiation, and S. Upadhyay, a senior vice president at the Advanced Medicare and Research Institute (AMRI) hospital, confirmed the deaths so far of 86 patients and three nurses.
According to news reports, many of the medical staff on duty fled when the fire broke out, leaving the hapless patients to their fates. TV footage showed fire crews smashing windowpanes on the second and third floors of the hospital, bringing surviving patients down to safety with ropes and stretchers.
News reports suggest that the fire service was informed at 4:10 am Friday morning local time about the blaze, an hour after smoke was noticed, but it took almost another hour to reach the location. Witnesses say that by the time the ambulance and fire crews reached the fire, the building had been engulfed in flames. Additional Director General of Fire Services D. Biswas denied there was a delay in responding.
A lack of fire preparedness at the hospital, combined with the narrow streets in the neighborhood, are said to have hampered early efforts to rescue the 160 patients reportedly staying in the 190-bed annex.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has cancelled the private hospital’s license. News magazine The Week had only recently judged the hospital as one of the best in this massive, sprawling city. Police have detained the owner of the hospital, along with all six directors.
The state urban development minister was quoted as saying that the hospital basement was being used as a storage area, despite warnings by the municipal authorities to clear the basement.
This latest tragedy is expected to heighten growing concern over the way large private hospitals are operated at a time when many are arguing that they are being run as profit making ventures, with scant regard for basic safety.