Smoke that signals a warning

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Between the first alarm and the arrival of help three hours later, the AMRI honchos had already begun the cover-up. Tusha Mittal tracks the tragic sequence

Photos: Pintu Pradhan

IT WAS 2.15 am when Chaitanya Mehta first smelt the fumes. “I was lucky to have been awake,” he said. “Those who were asleep suffocated to death.” At 4.40 am on 9 December, Indranath Chatterjee was still breathing. He called his daughter, “There’s a fire. Please do something,” he said. Chatterjee was unable to walk out of AMRI Hospital, Kolkata, as he was admitted for a fracture of the femur. By the time his family reached the hospital gates, blackened dead bodies were being carted out. His was one of them.

Burning questions: The fire brigade did its work but too late for patients who choked to death
Burning questions: The fire brigade did its work but too late for patients who choked to death, Photo: Pintu Pradhan

In the days ahead, 9 December will become part of the nation’s collective memory. There have been only two other hospital fires in world history that have taken a greater toll: 125 people dead in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1929. And 170 people dead at a Guatemala hospital fire in 1960. This is India’s worst.

“Our preliminary investigation shows short circuit could have caused the fire, but we cannot be sure yet,” says Kolkata’s fire department director Gopal Bhattacharya. The blaze started in the basement of Annexe 1, which was designed as a parking garage but was used to store inflammable material and chemicals. In an August inspection, fire department officials pointed to the dangers. A conditional noobjection certificate was granted. An affidavit submitted by AMRI promised to remove inflammables within three months. It never happened.

Officials confirm that the deaths are due to toxic smoke rising from the basement. Through AC ducts and ventilators, the fumes filled three floors of the hospital, choking patients. “Patients have died mainly due to suffocation from carbon monoxide,” says Bhattacharya.

In the days ahead, 9 December will perhaps be remembered for the horror stories: 94 patients choked to death by toxic fumes. Dead because help arrived three hours late. A father barred from rescuing his daughter. A son told he had to clear his dues before he could search for his mother. Tinted hermetically sealed windows. Closed emergency exits. No fire escape route. The possibility that hospital authorities — aware of the safety violations — tried to cover up the incident. Ninety-four people dead because there was never any evacuation plan, and when one was urgently needed, the night staff on duty chose to flee.

“Even when I saw the fire brigade, I wasn’t sure I would make it,” a nurse on duty said. “As I was climbing out, I felt bad for the patients in the ICU. I knew they had no chance.”

Yet, beyond the horror and the tragedy, something else unfolded. Perhaps 9 December will be remembered not for the condemnation of those who ran away, but for the salutation of those who ran in. Despite being barred from the premises, slum-dwellers living behind the hospital managed to save many of the 150 trapped patients.

This is what happened on 9 December according to Somnath Chandra, a resident of Panchanantala slum. His testimony is crucial because it shows this was less a crisis of fire, and more of evacuation. A crisis that could have been averted had the hospital acted on time: “At 1 am, we heard screams for help,” recalls Chandra. “When we climbed onto our roof, we saw smoke coming out of the building and patients trying to break windows themselves. We rushed to the hospital main gate but the security would not let us in. They said nothing has happened. We cannot let you enter. It will be okay.”

They returned home, clobbered holes in the walls, cut barbed wire fence and leapt over. By then, it was 3 am. “We could see patients climbing down, using bedsheets and saris as ropes. We used bamboos to climb up the hospital building. It was totally dark. All the lights had gone out. We saw the hospital staff running away. Nurses and doctors were fleeing. Many of them had climbed down already. We pleaded with them to turn on the ambulance headlights so it would be easier to rescue patients. But there was no one to help.”

MAKESHIFT LADDERS were put together, windows smashed. “We could barely see anything or breathe, there was so much smoke,” says Chandra. “I along with a few others rescued at least 15 patients. Those on the third floor were alive. But on the fourth floor, we found mostly dead bodies. Even after we got them down, there was nothing to take them in. No stretchers. No ambulances. When the fire brigade arrived, we used their ladders to go up again.”

Since the fire, six directors of AMRI hospital have been arrested. A Special Investigation Team headed by Joint Commissioner of Police Damayanti Sen is probing the lapses and delays. “We found the fire fighting equipment was non-functional. Smoke alarms and fire extinguishers were also not working. The fire was detected at 2.30 am. The fire department was informed much later,” Sen told TEHELKA.

If call records show that AMRI directors were in touch with each other before 4 am, the theory of a hush-up is validated

The SIT has questioned three senior management staff on duty that night — Preetha Banerjee, Sajid Hossain and PK Ghata. According to police sources, all three say they alerted at least two hospital directors about the fire. Yet, their statements differ on the timing of the call. Sources say Hossain has confessed to noticing the fire at 2 am, and calling the directors only at 3.40 am. Another night staff claims to have called the directors at 4 am. There is no explanation yet for why they chose to call the directors and not the fire department. Police are looking into the possibility of internal pressure to suppress the incident. Police investigators also indicated the possibility that AMRI directors were in touch with each other even before 4 am. “There are various contradictions in the versions of the AMRI directors and the night staff. We are looking into the phone records,” a senior police official told TEHELKA. The call timings will be crucial. If it is established that AMRI directors were in touch with the night staff and each other significantly prior to 4 am, it corroborates the theory that AMRI tried to hush up the incident.

Post the fire, Kolkata conducted its first fire safety audit. Fire officials found several major hospitals violating the conditional NoC certificates. In fact, a 2010 CAG report had suggested the government review even the concept of granting a conditional noobjection certificate in matters of fire safety. For instance, Woodlands Hospital was granted a provisional NoC in May 2009 and asked to install fire alarms, sprinklers, and smoke detectors. A follow-up inspection in January this year found some alarms installed, but non-functional. The hospital asked for a year’s time. The latest audit this week revealed nothing had been done.

The inspection at Fortis Hospital revealed a very narrow access for fire tenders, a fire escape with low plyboard ceiling and cartons dumped in the landing — all of which are blatant violations of the National Building Code. “We need to take a closer look at our National Building Code,” says Himanshu Upadhyay, design faculty at Rizvi College of Architecture. “Entirely closed glass buildings with no open windows should not be allowed in India. This should be a wake-up call for everyone.”

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
tusha@tehelka.com

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