Kolkata, Dec 9: Ajoy Ghosal, an 80-year old cancer patient, was to be released this morning from AMRI Hospital, but the devastating fire that claimed more than 70 lives changed everything.
Ghosal, a political leader, died after inhaling the poisonous smoke from the fire that engulfed the seven-storey centrally air-conditioned hospital building. “He was shifted to the annexe building last evening only from the main hospital building and was to be released this morning,” Jishnu Choudhury, a relative of Ghosal, told PTI outside the multi-facility AMRI Hospital at Dhakuria in the southern part of the city.
There were many others like Ghosal, admitted to the super speciality hospital with the hope of recovering from their illness, who suffered the same fate.
Presenting a grim sight, more than 20 bodies were lying on the floor of an operation theatre on the second floor of the main building as anxious relatives milled around hoping desperately that their near and dear ones were not among them. There were 164 patients in the building at the time the fire, which started from the basement packed with inflammable stuff, which engulfed the building.
Hospital sources said 94 patients have been shifted to other hospitals or to the main building of the AMRI Hospital. Foul smell of the smoke hovered all around the annexe building and people fell unwell after inhaling it. Glass shards from the broken panes were strewn all around the ground floor and outside.
“We had brought our patient here to survive and not to die like this. One has to spend lakhs of rupees to get their patients treated here and this is what we have got,” Bhanu Bhattacharya, whose daughter Shibani was admitted at the hospital, said.
For several hours there was no one to assist relatives of the patients. Angry over ‘mismanagement', some relatives vandalised the reception at the main hospital building. Ram Das, uncle of 30-year old Sampa Chowdhury, who died in the fire, said, “We are from Agartala in Tripura, my niece suffered injuries in a bus accident and was admitted her here on November 11.”
“I was staying in the waiting hall at night when I noticed the fire,” he said, adding he and several others asked security guards to bring down the patients. “As smoke was billowing out, we requested them to bring out the patients, but they did not pay heed and said things will be alright,” Das said.
The relatives alleged there was little help from hospital staff and security personnel when the patients were gasping for breath in their beds.
Many of the patients who had been administered sedatives died in their sleep, while others could only helplessly watch the smoke enter their cabins through the doors and AC vents. Locals, mainly from a nearby slum, rushed in for help when they detected the fire.
Uttam Haldar, one of the locals, said, “We rushed in when we came to know of the fire at around 3.30 am. With little help from hospital officials coming, we entered the building and broke the glass panes to let foul air pass.”
Manas Sau, another local, who assisted in the rescue effort, said, “The fire brigade with its fire tenders were waiting at the main gate which was locked, and only after much efforts that they were able to break in.”
The fire brigade personnel used snorkel ladders and other equipment to reach some of the patients and bring to safety. These patients were immediately shifted to the main building or other hospitals by government officials and Kolkata Police personnel.
The Commissioner of Kolkata Police, R K Pachnanda, and other senior officials supervised the shifting of the patients and coordinated with the fire brigade personnel. Even at 11.00 am, eight hours after the fire broke out, no senior officer of the hospital administration was seen and the only information the officials gave was to hang a handwritten list of some names at the reception. The list, however, did not mention whether the names were of casualties or those shifted to other hospitals.
The lack of information and absence of senior officials had the distraught relatives at their wit's end as tempers started to fray. Some of them vandalised furniture. A beeline of VIPs to the hospital did not help either as their presence caused hindrance to the rescue operations. While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who also holds the health portfolio, was a welcome arrival, several others only managed to clutter the place.
Angry relatives were heard saying, “We want only Didi (Mamata Banerjee) here, what are so many other leaders doing here?”
Several ministers visited the hospital as also the Opposition leader, Suryakanta Mishra, who was the health minister in the previous Left Front government. Some other CPI (M) leaders also visited the hospital.
Relatives of Meera Bose, 64, who was admitted to the hospital's ITU, said she could not be traced. Kashinath Sarkar, who was supposed to be discharged two days back, also died in the fire.
His relative Ranjit Dutta said he could not be released because of financial disputes and we were planning to shift him to another hospital.
Two fire-fighters were injured and one of them was rushed to the SSKM Hospital with critical eye injuries. Thirty-two volunteers of Bharat Sevashram Sangha also volunteered in the rescue effort.