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The awful state of health care in Bengal

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The latest story of medical negligence to emerge from Kolkata involves the death by suffocation of a large number of people in a fire in a hospital, spreading from inflammable material stored illegally in a basement car park.

IE reported:

Medical staff at the AMRI hospital – one of Kolkata’s top medical facilities – abandoned their patients and fled for safety early Friday as fire and smoke poured through the building, leaving 88 people dead, many from smoke inhalation, officials said.

Six people, including industrialist S K Todi of the AMRI group were arrested and the licence of the hospital cancelled.

Earlier IBN live reported:

Forty people are confirmed dead due to suffocation in a major fire that broke out at AMRI Hospital in Dhakuria in south Kolkata on Friday. All the dead are reported to be patients as the hospital authorities fled from the spot.

As angry relatives gathered at the hospital to look for their loved ones, they vent their ire at the lack of relief and rescue efforts by the hospital authorities by damaging AMRI’s properties.

Many people were, however, still believed to be trapped inside. The fire was under control. Nearly 25 fire tenders were working hard to evacuate all patients and staff.

BBC updates the death toll to 73, and quotes the chief minister:

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the licence of the hospital had been cancelled.

She said fire was an “unforgivable crime” and that those responsible would be given the harshest punishment.

Talk is cheap. Previous cases of extreme negligence in health care were brushed under the carpet by the same government. Safety norms were not imposed, as the Deccan Chronicle finds:

The firemen evacuated patients with pulleys from the upper floors as they were not in a condition to be taken down by ladders put up by the fire brigade all around the building.

The fire brigade had difficulty in entering the hospital premises as the approach roads were narrow, he said. Additional Director General, Fire Services, D. Biswas said that the fire brigade was informed at 4:10 AM and responded immediately.

Biswas said that patients who died were admitted in the critical care and orthopaedic units and were unable to move.

He said if proper fire fighting arrangements existed at the hospital, such a fire could not have taken place.

[Senior vice-president of AMRI S.] Upadhay claimed that the hospital followed strict fire safety measures and conducted regular fire drills. “All statutory safety and fire licences are in place.”

Z News corroborates the Fore Department’s version of the story:

Although there is still no clarity on what caused the fire at the AMRI hospital in Kolkata early Friday, initial investigation into the incident suggests that fire safety norms were clearly violated by the hospital management.

According to the fire brigade officials, who were involved in the relief and rescue operation, the basement of the AMRI hospital, which should have been used for parking vehicles, was converted into a medical equipment storage facility.

The experts of the fire department say that some highly flammable material were being stored in the basement, which possibly stoked the fire which is supposed to have been caused by an electric short-circuit.

West Bengal Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim has also confirmed that the hospital basement was being illegally used as the storage facility, thus violating the safety standards meant for avoiding such mishaps.

Initial investigation into the incident and the eyewitnesses suggest that the fire originated in the electrical department in the basement of the AMRI hospital at around 3 am, which quickly spread to the first and second floors, trapping patients.

The electricity supply was immediately cut off by the fire brigade officials to prevent it from spreading to other areas and causing much damage.

The day after the disaster, the Daily Pioneer editorialized:

it is a measure of humanity in these troubled times that the hospital staff, on whom the patients were dependent for their lives, were the first to flee. They deserve to be pitilessly punished as much as those who are responsible for the day-to-day management of the hospital; the owners of AMRI, who have surrendered to the police, should be given exemplary punishment so that other ‘entrepreneurs’ are not tempted to cut corners while minting money.

That, however, will not bring this tragedy to a closure for which two other issues need to be addressed. Apparently AMRI was warned in September by civic officials about the mess in its basement, from where Friday’s fire began, and asked to clean up its act. Clearly, AMRI did not bother to do so: Given the ease with which punitive action for non-adherence to rules and regulations can be warded off by greasing the right palms, the hospital’s owners ignored the warning, secure in the belief nothing would come of it. Second, it is now established that AMRI did not have any fire-fighting system in place, not even basic equipment, in contravention of mandatory rules. It is the responsibility of the Fire Department to monitor compliance and, in the event of non-compliance, to seal the premises. The Fire Department did not do so. The reasons for that failure are too well known to merit elaboration. Suffice to say that AMRI’s owners were operating by taking recourse to ‘business practices’ that militate against the law of the land. The Government of West Bengal owes an explanation on both these issues; it must also take demonstrative action against the concerned officials who so abjectly failed in fulfilling their responsibilities.

December 15, 2011

As the fire department continues to investigate, shocking details are reported by TOI:

The AMRI Dhakuria night staff not only wasted two precious hours trying to douse the fire on their own, they even refused to let the fire brigade enter when the entire annexe building had already turned into a gas chamber and patients were dying.

Fire officials investigating the blaze have told TOI that the basement was packed with highly inflammable goods – from LPG and oxygen cylinders to chemicals, floor cleaners and PVC material. There was so much of it that forensic experts found it difficult to identify where the fire started.

“It was a veritable jatugriha (tinderbox),” an officer said. Wooden boxes, empty medicine cartons, plastic boxes and cotton were dumped in huge quantities. This is what created the unstoppable clouds of smoke that took 93 lives.

Investigators have pinpointed three possible sources of the blaze. First, a gas stove that should never have been used next to flammable stuff. Fire officials have found evidence that it was used to make tea, perhaps for the night shift. Second, electric cables that did not have the mandatory fireproof casing. Fire officials have found burn-out cables, indicating a short circuit. A spark here would have easily ignited any of the chemicals or plastics dumped around. An asbestos casing would have prevented the sparks from flying about but the cables were open, said sources. Third, the air-conditioning mother plant.

A history of suppressing records of safety lapses is also emerging, as the Kolkata Telegraph reports:

Three days before Friday’s tragedy, a night guard named Haradhan Chakraborty had allegedly been pulled up for dialling the fire brigade to douse a “small fire” on the first floor of AMRI Medical Centre at Southern Avenue.

“He was served a showcause notice for negligence, based on the allegation that he had dozed off while on duty and so couldn’t assess the situation properly. The official version of that incident is that there was only slight smoke, for which an external agency need not have been called in,” a Lalbazar source said.

On learning that Chakraborty had called for help, someone hurriedly called the fire brigade to say it was a false alarm. The incident was not recorded at the fire control room because the SOS was withdrawn, the source said.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

December 9, 2011 at 8:42 am

One Response

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  1. […] deadly fire in a hospital in Kolkata has shaken up Mumbai, where the fire department has begun to inspect hospitals. HT reports: In a […]

    Hospital safety « Karela Fry

    December 14, 2011 at 3:53 am

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