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Kolkata hospital blaze kills 90, India mourns

In the worst fire tragedy in any hospital in India, 90 patients and staffers were killed in Kolkata's well-known AMRI hospital when a terrible blaze engulfed its annexe building early Friday, trapping dozens of helpless patients while doctors and others fled to safety.

The pre-dawn fire broke out at 3.30 a.m., catching many in their sleep. While most nurses, doctors and other staffers were able to get away, many critically ill patients suffocated to death in their hospital beds.

The dead included a patient from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The tragedy unfolded over many hours. Some were suffocated, some were too infirm to escape the toxic fumes. The lucky few were brought down the side of the four-storey glass facade building using ropes and ladders, even as thousands watched in horror.

The fire brigade, many alleged, came over two hours late. The fire brigade blamed it on narrow lanes leading to the hospital.

The autopsy has been completed on 87 victims and 84 have been identified, officials said. The blaze also injured over 50 patients. Of the list of 81 dead obtained by IANS, 39 are of women, including two teenaged girls. Of the 42 males, one is a 16-year-old boy.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered the arrest of six hospital directors.

"The hospital staff initially prevented the fire fighters from entering the building," said Banerjee, a shocking admission that only added fuel to the helpless anger of the families of the dead and injured.

The bodies, most of them bearing signs of suffocation, piled up at the SSKM hospital for autopsy. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee visited the SSKM hospital in the evening and expressed grief and shock over the fire tragedy.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the nation in expressing grief over the tragedy. He announced Rs.200,000 as compensation to families of each of those killed.

Till late in the evening, rescuers were trying to drill holes in the wall and smash the glass-panes in a last ditch effort to look for survivors and bodies, and extinguish still smouldering fires.

Co-founded by the Emami & Shrachi Groups along with the West Bengal government in 1996, the hospital. once rated as amongst India's best, is located in the fairly upscale Dhakuria neighbourhood.

High profile industrialists -- Emami Group Chairman R.S. Goenka and Shrachi Group's R.S. Todi -- and four other directors of the hospital were arrested. The hospital's licence was cancelled.

The injured and other patients in the ill-fated annexe have been shifted to Bellevue Clinic, SSKM, APC Hospital, BP Poddar Hospital, besides the group's hospital at Salt Lake and its Woman and Child hospital at Mukundapur. Some patients have been transferred to the two unaffected blocks of AMRI, Dhakuria.

It was a sorry saga of bureaucratic and government inefficiency, leading to the second major fire in Kolkata in 20 months -- after the March 23, 2010 blaze at the British-era Stephen Court in the heart of the bustling Park Street claimed 43 lives.

The fire brigade was initially ill-equipped - coming without masks and with only rickety manual lifts - to deal with the horrific disaster.

Anguished relatives and rescuers also complained that the fire erupted in the basement packed with combustible material, including oxygen cylinders and chemicals.

No wonder, the hospital, which prides itself on its super specialty facilities and attracts many foreigners, quickly turned into a death trap, with the sealed windows and glass.

"The victims mostly got suffocated from the fumes," Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim said.

"The father of one of my friends was admitted in one of the upper floors. When he heard I am at the spot he called up his son and told him to ask me to rescue him. I could not do anything. I saw his burnt body."

At the time of the fire, there were 160 patients, including around 40-50 in the ICU.

The hospital has two other blocks in the complex.

Through the morning, patients blackened by soot, some dead and others barely alive, were brought out while relatives and locals vented their ire at the state and hospital administration.

"The administration is hopeless, useless," shouted Pradeep Sarkar. His father-in-law had been admitted there Thursday night with a heart ailment.

He said the sky lift came only around 7 a.m.

"They (firemen) came with manual ladders. Had the sky lift come earlier, many people could have been saved," said Sarkar.

Banerjee rushed to the spot, but only stoked the rage of the people.

"Because Mamata is here, the ambulances cannot go towards the annexe building. Please ask her to shift to another road," screamed a relative.

Hospital officials said they had all fire-fighting equipment in place and did not know what had gone wrong.

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