Kolkata: Six board members of the AMRI hospital in Kolkata have been arrested for culpable homicide after this morning's fire in which 89 people - 85 patients and four staff members - died. The board members including prominent industrialists SK Todi and RS Goenka - reported to also be the owners of the hospital - voluntarily surrendered at a local police station.
There were 160 people inside the hospital in Dhakuria, south Kolkata, when the fire began at about 3 am.
Families of the victims and the government accuse the privately-owned and posh hospital of ignoring basic fire safety laws; they also say that after the fire began, doctors and staff members abandoned patients, many of who were immobile.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said this morning's tragedy was "an unforgivable crime" and vowed "the harshest punishment possible" for those found responsible. "As per my announcement that offenders will be arrested, six persons, including SK Todi, have been arrested," Ms Banerjee told reporters. "Law will take its own course. Those responsible for so many deaths will be dealt with seriously," she said. Ms Banerjee said the fire services authorities and the police had cautioned the AMRI Hospital authorities in September about its basement. "AMRI had given an undertaking, but did not keep it," she said.
The licence of the hospital has been cancelled. A First Information Report or FIR has also been filed, which launches a criminal case. "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."
The fire began in the basement, where highly inflammable material was allegedly stored. Eyewitnesses say they first spotted and reported smoke streaming from the hospital around 3 am, but the first fire engine arrived two hours later. Additional Director General Fire Services D Biswas, however, denied any delay. He said that the fire brigade was informed at 4.10 am and it responded immediately.
The road leading to the hospital is narrow and congested. Inside the hospital, there was chaos - the building was engulfed in smoke, many patients suffocated. "Every door is locked, every window is locked," said a resident who tried to help. (Watch: Rescue worker shares what he saw) "We cannot bring any patient outside," he said, his anger visible. Through the morning, firemen were seen using ropes and ladders to enter the different floors of the hospital; some windows had to be smashed. News agency IANS quoted an unnamed hospital spokesperson who reportedly said, "At the time of the fire, there were 160 patients, including around 40-50 in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit)." A man whose wife, Munmun, died in the fire says that in the orthopedic ward where she suffocated, most patients were injured and could not move to safety. (Munmun, 36, phoned husband to say she was suffocating)
By 11 am, bodies were being moved to the SSKM hospital, where families were asked to identify them.
Fire department officials like Mr Biswas blame the hospital for turning into a death trap, alleging that the hospital did not have adequate fire-fighting facilities. AMRI staff denies this. "All statutory safety and fire licences are in place," said S Upadhay, senior vice-president of the hospital.