December 10, 2011 in Nation/World

Hospital staff flee fire; scores left to die

Manik Banerjee Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Fire officials rescue a patient from the window of a hospital after it caught fire in Kolkata, India, on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

KOLKATA, India – Fleeing medical staff abandoned patients to a fire that killed 89 people Friday as black smoke poured through the seven-story hospital in this city in eastern India, officials said. Six administrators were arrested.

Dwellers of a nearby slum who first noticed the smoke and fire rushed to the AMRI Hospital to raise the alarm, but security guards kept them back, saying it was only a small blaze, witnesses said.

It took firefighters in the city formerly known as Calcutta more than an hour to respond, said Pradeep Sarkar, a witness whose uncle was hospitalized but was among those safely evacuated from the private facility. Some of the slum dwellers helped with the rescue.

The neighborhood’s narrow streets apparently made it difficult for firetrucks to get close to the building and to bring in big hydraulic ladders. Eventually, they smashed through a main gate to make way for the ladders.

Six hospital directors surrendered to police and were charged with culpable homicide, according to police.

Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, ordered the hospital’s license withdrawn.

“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.”

Rescuers pulled 73 bodies from the building and another 16 died of their injuries later, said Danayati Sen, a top Kolkata police official. Most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, rescue officials said.

Four of the dead were staff members.

There were 160 patients in the 190-bed facility at the time of the fire.

One survivor told Indian television she was at the bedside of her mother, who was on a ventilator, when smoke started filling the room.

“I kept ringing the bell for the nurse, but no one came,” she said, adding that rescuers managed to evacuate her mother more than two hours after the fire started.

The blaze erupted about 3:30 a.m. in the basement, and heavy smoke quickly engulfed the hospital. The cause was not immediately known.

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