Deadly India hospital fire, execs charged

2011-12-10 21:46

Kolkata - Six senior executives were charged on Saturday with culpable homicide and violating safety rules over a hospital fire in Kolkata that killed at least 90 people.

The six executives are from two companies that co-own the hospital where poisonous fumes spread from a blaze in the building's basement. The charges, if proved, could result in a maximum 10-year imprisonment.

Javed Khan, head of the fire service in West Bengal state - of which Kolkata is the capital - suggested the incident pointed towards gross negligence and serious violations of safety norms.

"There was a fire in 2008 in the same hospital and we are trying to probe how the authorities got their fire licence renewed," Khan told AFP.

On Friday, patients were lowered down the outside of the hospital on ropes after the fire broke out in the early hours of Friday at the privately-run AMRI hospital, engulfing the multi-storey premises in thick smoke.

Firefighters and staff smashed glass windows to evacuate some of the 160 patients, with local media alleging that fire alarms and extinguishers had not been working.

"In all, 90 bodies have been extricated from the hospital. 88 of these bodies have been identified and handed over to the relatives," Damayanti Sen, joint commissioner of police, told AFP on Saturday.

Kolkata Police commissioner R K Pachnanda later said another patient had died during Saturday, taking the toll to 91, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Sen, who is heading the team appointed to investigate the tragedy, added that all the deaths were due to the inhalation of toxic fumes which quickly filled the wards. Four staff were among those killed.

Initial investigations suggested the fire might have been started by a short circuit in the basement, which was used to store oxygen cylinders, plastic pipes, fibre coils, chemicals and medical equipment.

Fire engines had trouble reaching the hospital, which is surrounded by narrow roads, and distraught relatives gathered outside during the rescue operation.

"We heard the patients crying for help," said Shivani Mondal, 60, who lives in a slum settlement next to the hospital in the south of the city.

"The fire brigade had not arrived by then, but the security guards and officials did not allow people from our locality to enter the premises to help them," she told AFP.

"Finally young men used bamboo ladders to rescue who they could."

Samir Nandi, a 50-year-old state railways employee, said the teeming city of 14 million people would be haunted by the tragedy and the failures that caused the death toll to be so high.

"I have never seen such devastation before," said Nandi. "This incident shows that our hospitals are no better than cremation grounds."

Subrata Mukherjee, a state minister, on Friday said senior members of the hospital staff appeared to have fled as soon as the fire broke out, abandoning patients, many of whom were sedated, elderly or infirm.

"It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients," Mukherjee told reporters.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh voiced his "shock and anguish" at the heavy loss of life.