Kolkata hospital fire: Mamata Banerjee orders judicial inquiry

Kolkata hospital fire: Mamata Banerjee orders judicial inquiry
Kolkata:  A day after 91 people were killed in a massive fire at the AMRI hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee today ordered a judicial inquiry into the incident.

"Since people have faith on the judicial system and a tragedy of huge dimension has occurred, we have taken this decision. We have nothing to hide", Ms Banerjee told reporters at the Writers' Buildings. She added that police investigation into the incident would continue simultaneously.

Earlier in the day, the seven accused in the case, all board members of the hospital who were arrested yesterday, were remanded to police custody till December 20 by the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Alipore. The said accused include Radhe Shyam Goenka, Prashant Goenka, Manish Goenka, Shrawan Kumar Todi, Ravi Todi, Dayanand Aggarwal and Radhe Shyam Aggarwal who have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder for the deadly fire.

Amitabh Ganguly, who appeared for the accused, told newsmen outside the court that he was not allowed to move the bail petition. "We were not allowed to move the bail application. Some of my clients were ill and we wanted bail on health grounds, but we were not allowed to function," Mr Ganguly said. "It was a one-sided hearing," he alleged.

The board members had voluntarily surrendered at a local police station yesterday.

Two out of the three blocks of the hospital - one which caught fire and the one adjacent to it - have also been sealed this morning.

There were 160 people inside the hospital in Dhakuria, south Kolkata, when the fire began at around 3 am yesterday.

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 had termed the tragedy "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 yesterday. "Law will take its own course. Those responsible for so many deaths will be dealt with seriously," she said. Ms Banerjee had also 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. "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.

Relatives of patients vandalized the reception of the hospital yesterday, upset that not enough information was being shared by staff. (Read: Family members vandalise hospital reception)

AMRI hospital was set up in 1996, and is co-owned by the Emami & Shrachi Groups.

(With agency inputs)

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