Kolkata: At least 89 people died of asphyxia on Friday because they weren’t evacuated in time after fire broke out in the basement of a private hospital in Kolkata, exposing patients and staff to poisonous fumes that travelled rapidly through the airconditioning system to other parts of the largely windowless building. The death toll from the fire, one of the worst in Kolkata, is expected to increase.

Desperate efforts: Firefighters carrying out rescue operations. Photo: PTI

As many as 130 employees— including 70 nurses and 20 doctors—were in the hospital when the fire broke out so it wasn’t immediately clear why the patients couldn’t be evacuated quickly enough.

Fire workers suspect services were inadequate when the blaze broke out. “Hospital workers here are not trained to respond to such situations," said a fire department official, who did not want to be named. Untrained locals were the first people who rushed to the rescue.

In a statement, Amri Hospitals said that its staff managed to save 94 inpatients, implying that some of those who died perished even after being evacuated. Seventy inpatients and three hospital workers died at the site, the hospital said.

All who died were victims of smoke inhalation and not burn injuries, according to doctors at a government hospital where the autopsies were conducted. The fire remained confined to the basement and didn’t spread to the patient wards.

The state government has formed at least three committees to probe the incident. At the instruction of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal government on Friday cancelled the licence of the Dhakuria unit of Kolkata’s Amri Hospitals.

A joint venture between consumer goods maker Emami Ltd and real estate developer Shrachi Group runs Amri Hospitals. The state government has a small stake of around 1%, in the firm, which has two other multi-specialty hospitals in Kolkata.

Six directors of Amri Hospitals, including Shrachi Group chairman S.K. Todi and Emami co-chairman R.S. Goenka, were arrested. They were charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder and with causing death due to negligence.

Hospital fires are not uncommon. Fire broke out at as many as five National Heath Service, or NHS-run hospitals in London between January 2008 and February 2009.

One of them, the 240-bed Royal Marsden Hospital required complete evacuation, which was achieved in 28 minutes. There were no casualties although there were at least 198 patients at the site when the fire broke out, according to an NHS report on fire safety at hospitals. “Over 150 emergency services personnel were involved in the response."

In Friday’s Kolkata incident, fumes from the combustion in the basement travelled through airconditioning, trapped by toughened glass that covered the building.

Amri Hospitals issued a statement saying that the fire started at around 3.30am. But locals say they had noticed smoke billowing much earlier. They tried to enter the hospital but were stopped by the staff.

Fire trucks arrived at around 4am, but emergency workers couldn’t immediately enter the smoke-filled hospital. By the time they managed to reach the upper floors of the hospital, it was too late. Many couldn’t even step out of their beds—some died in their sleep with drips attached to their bodies.

The fire was brought under control at around 6am, according to a statement made by the hospital authorities.

Chief minister Banerjee said the fire department had asked Amri Hospitals authorities as recently as in September not to store inflammable substances in the basement. “But they didn’t follow fire safety norms," she said.

The basement, where the fire started, had a radiotherapy unit besides general storage, according to Debasish Kar, director general (buildings) at Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Though the radiotherapy unit was damaged by the fire, the state government said there was no threat of a radiation leak. Nothing hazardous was stored in the basement, Amri Hospitals said in its statement.