Lax Safety Cited in Deadly Hospital Fire in India

By MANIK BANERJEE | December 12, 2011

A private hospital in eastern India where dozens of people died in a massive fire failed to update its safety procedures despite being ordered to do so months ago, officials said Saturday.

Most of the victims died in their beds from inhaling noxious black smoke that filled the rooms and corridors of one of AMRI Hospital’s three buildings after the fire broke out before dawn Friday in the basement and medical staff fled the scene. One more person died from injuries on Saturday, raising the death toll to 91.

Six hospital directors were charged with culpable homicide, and were ordered by a court Saturday to be held in custody for 10 days while authorities investigate the fire. A seventh hospital director also charged in the case was to be brought before the court after being treated in a hospital for smoke inhalation.

Authorities had warned the hospital in September about the basement, where radiation equipment and other supplies were stored, but no action was taken to improve safety, said West Bengal state Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who revoked the hospital’s license.

“This is a tragic incident and a criminal offense,” said Banerjee, who is also the state’s health minister.

Police also raided hospital directors’ and administrators’ homes and offices in their investigation. The seven people charged in the case face up to seven years in prison if convicted. A defense lawyer told reporters outside the court on Saturday that he was not given a chance to request bail.

The AMRI Hospital – recently rated by an Indian magazine as one of the best in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta – did not have proper firefighting equipment, despite a 6-month-old order to upgrade, Kolkata Joint Police Commissioner Damyani Sen said.

There were also no emergency exits, and all fire alarms had been switched off, West Bengal governing party lawmaker Kalyan Banerjee told the court Saturday, according to Press Trust of India. Banerjee, who is not related to the chief minister, also noted that it took 50 minutes for the hospital to inform police of the blaze.

The hospital denied that any safety measures were violated.

Authorities were still trying to determine what caused the blaze, but said no radiation leak had been detected.

Witnesses say many medical staff abandoned the hospital’s 160 or so patients and fled the fire. Firefighters took more than an hour to arrive, and then had trouble bringing fire trucks close to the seven-story hospital building because of the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

Neighborhood residents said hospital guards initially blocked them from trying to help rescue patients.

“Finally, we forced our way,” said 18-year-old Babu Sona Goldar, one of the first to enter. “If we were allowed to go in early, we could have saved a few more lives.”

Rescue workers on ladders eventually smashed windows to reach patients on the upper floors, and most survivors were taken to a nearby hospital, although at least 25 of the most critical patients were still being kept Saturday in AMRI Hospital’s main wing, which was unaffected by the blaze. Hospital workers said, however, they had received no information on moving them or instruction to do so.

Journalists were barred Saturday from entering the hospital complex, where broken glass and shattered furniture lay strewn about. Walls had been plastered overnight with political party posters demanding that victims be compensated and that guilty parties be punished.

Flowers were placed on the pavement outside the complex, where the state-owned Insurance Corporation of India set up temporary kiosks to help relatives handle any claims on their lost loved ones.

Safety regulations are routinely ignored at Indian hospitals, with few having fire stairways or holding evacuation drills. Even if fire extinguishers are present, they are commonly several years old and never serviced.

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