My head is full of the horrendous events in Kolkata on last Friday. Having a party to attend in the city that evening, I had woken up in a fairly good mood, and planning outfits for my little monkey and myself, wrapping gifts, driving to the venue, these were some things I expected to be doing that day.
Not someone to normally watch the news, I had no clue about what had been going on since just after midnight. The first intimation of the tragedy was a phone call from a colleague of my man’s, asking us to turn the TV on and switch to a bangle news channel. And immediately my day went to hell. A massive fire had broken out at the basement level of the high-end AMRI hospital at Dhakuria, and while the actual fire had not yet appeared on upper floors, over forty people were feared dead from smoke and toxic fume inhalation.
The news just kept getting worse through the day. The toll rose from “forty feared” to ninety confirmed deaths by evening, all of them helpless patients of the orthopedic wing, the ITU and the ICU, all of them slowly and painfully asphyxiating to death while unable to get the hell out. Staff was nowhere to be seen, and no attempt was made by the nursing staff or doctors, or anyone else connected to the hospital to evacuate the most helpless of patients. The only shining stars were two Keralite nurses who pulled quite a few patients to safety on one of the floors before succumbing to the fumes. A sad loss that only added to the weight of the tragedy.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, as more and more facts emerge, it is clear that sheer greed and the systemic negligence we are so blasé about are the direct cause of the death of ninety one people, all but two of whom had gone into a “top class” and very expensive hospital to get better and come home well again. The first rung of those responsible, is obviously composed of the employees, management, and directors of this establishment, who are almost directly responsible for the huge disaster. The fire originated in a lot of stored cotton, surrounded by other highly flammable objects such as paper records, wooden crates, various chemicals, and other junk stored illegally in what was supposed to be the basement car park for the facility. Not only was the car park no longer a car park, but it had been turned into a series of offices and store rooms, along with labs for radiology and filing systems.
Apparently, a routine fire department inspection – probably the only one undertaken since the facility opened, -- had found these lapses, and the hospital had been warned that they should empty the space ASAP. This was six months ago, and the hospital had filed an affidavit claiming that action would be taken at the soonest. Of course, no action was taken, and no follow up done by the fire department to ensure that instructions had been followed, leading directly to the tragedy. In addition, all kinds of chemicals, diesel cans, and surgical spirits etc were stored there, again illegally, leading to the noxious and poisonous fumes which claimed so many lives.
When the fire started, no call was made to the fire brigade. Some calls went to the directors and upper management, mostly unanswered (it was after all 2.30 am, u cant expect them to lose their beauty sleep over something as trivial as an inferno in a hospital), and not much action taken to evacuate the patients, or to curb the fire. None of the patients’ relatives were informed either. When one or two of the patients called home to say breathing was becoming difficult and black smoke and fumes were pouring in through the central-air-conditioning ducts, and relatives rushed to the hospital to take the patients home, they were denied access, and told that everything was fine and there was no emergency.
As the hours passed, and the situation worsened, some of the private attendants of the patients, and some of the patients themselves tried to leave the wards, only to find no staff to be found anywhere, and all the windows sealed (for better functioning of the AC). Without recourse, they broke some windows (not an easy task as they are thick ones to prevent weather damage and such like which would entail frequent replacement) to try to let some fresh air in, and maybe to escape. The fire department was finally notified at about 4.30 am, two hours after the smoke first started pouring into lungs weakened by disease, surgery or medication, and they were notified by the cops (themselves notified by relatives of the patients) and not the hospital management.
When the fire department arrived, and tried to enter the basement to put the fire out, they were actually prevented from doing that by the employees of the main branch, and the management. The annexe, a deathtrap at the time, had no staff inside, and a wall of them outside preventing the fire department from doing its job, and stopping volunteers from surrounding areas from going in to try to save lives. When the police and fire department finally pushed through, they had to break through multiple walls to try and find the source of the fumes, and to try and put out all the fires, and it was already too late for most of the patients upstairs.
Patients’ families had arrived by this time, all informed by various friends and relatives who were watching the breaking news bulletins, and none of them were given any kind of clear version of what was going on. There was no list of patients in those affected wards, and no word on who had made it out and who hadn’t. The fight to find loved ones went on all day, and well into the night, as did the unavailing war against the fire. Ugly black smoke could still be seen billowing out the windows as late as the next afternoon.
Total tally of loss, ninety one people, some of them about to be discharged that very morning but most helpless and immobile, and almost all of them very much awake when their oxygen starved lungs finally gave up the struggle to keep them alive – and the two selfless nurses who saved lives before giving up their own. As of now, the six members of the board of directors are residing in police custody. The new chief minister of the state was there, at the site of the tragedy, facilitated and smoothened the process for the relatives to claim the bodies, and immediately suspended the operational license of the hospital and ordered the arrest of the directors.
While that is a good thing, deeper questions need to be asked, and lessons learnt. Why were the fire alarms switched off? Whey were there no fire exits? Why were the windows un-open-able in an emergency? A hospital making 11 crores per annum, officially, couldn’t afford fire fighting equipment? Why were the staff not trained in rescue, evacuation and fire drills? Why were the sprinklers non functional? Why was there never a follow up on the basement storage issue even after it had appeared on the radar? Why are there still no regular checks or stringent measures to check and implement fire safety measures at ALL public buildings?
And …biggest Question of all – will the villainous greedy six, who saved a few rupees in training and equipment jeopardizing so many lives, be punished? Or will this end the way all other tragedies end in India? I’m afraid that the moment the media glare shift to the next big tragedy (or political comedy), the six will be handed their “get out of jail free” cards and go and open another deathtrap somewhere else. I am afraid that the victims will go unanswered in their silent plea for justice, that the survivors and loved ones will go uncompensated and without closure, and that the greedy but wealthy will continue to accrue more wealth at the cost of more innocent lives.
I do hope that does not happen. Time will tell.