May 23, 2013
Hospital fire kills at least 84 in India
A fire ripped through a seven-storey hospital in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata before dawn today, killing at least 84 people, most of them patients who were asleep when the blaze started.
Thick smoke engulfed the hospital and firefighters smashed windows to evacuate people down ladders to safety from upper floors. Other patients were rolled out on stretchers.
The fire broke out in the basement and quickly spread through the building by air-conditioning shafts. People said that the fire brigade took an hour to reach the scene.
"We could see helpless patients inside trying to catch our attention, asking for help by pressing their hands and faces against windows," said 36-year-old Sanjeet Kayal, a local resident who lives adjacent to AMRI hospital.
By mid-morning, the flames were under control and rescue workers had begun to bring the dead from the still smoking building, including at least two children whose bodies were covered by green blankets, a Reuters witness said.
The vice-president of the AMRI hospital, in a mostly middle class area of Kolkata, told reporters at least 84 people died in the blaze, all but three of them patients. He said 90 patients were safely evacuated.
"The fire was detected at 3.30 (am)...we called the fire brigade within five to 10 minutes," S. Upadhay told a rowdy news conference.
Angry local residents accused the hospital authorities of reacting too slowly, and pointed out another fire had broken out there three years ago. That time there were no casualties.
"The hospital is such that neither the ladders nor the fire brigades could get through ... so the rescue operations got a little delayed and in that time the smoke had risen up to the higher levels," Firhad Hakim, West Bengal state's Urban Development Minister, told reporters.
Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, was for years the capital of British-ruled India. It is one of South Asia's largest cities, known as much for literary culture as for cramped slums. It is now the capital of West Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee, who is both chief minister and health minister in the state, immediately cancelled the operating license for the AMRI hospital, part of a prominent chain of clinics in the city.
Shares in the conglomerate behind the AMRI chain, Emami Ltd, fell 2.3 percent to 390.95 rupees today.