Deadly Kolkata Hospital Fire Shocks Nation, Kills At Least 89

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Rescue workers evacuate a woman after a fire engulfed Amri hospital in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, India on December 9, 2011.

A massive fire at a private nursing home in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata killed at least 89 people in the early hours of Friday morning, and before the embers had cooled the finger-pointing had already begun.

(PHOTOS: The deadly blaze at a Kolkata hospital.)

The blaze at AMRI hospital, in Dhakuria in south Kolkata, which started at around 3:30 in the morning near the building’s basement entrance, quickly spread to engulf the 190-bed facility. Firefighters were seen smashing windows and using long ladders to enter and search the hospital’s wards, but at the height of the blaze they were unable to stay inside for more than 10 minutes at a stretch. “The insides are filled with smoke, it has been difficult to locate the wards to carry out rescue work,” Goutam Koyal, an officer of the disaster management wing of the Kolkata Police, told TIME later in the evening. The fire was brought under control by midmorning, and by the end of the day 59 patients at the 190-bed facility had been rescued and moved to other hospitals for treatment, including several surgery patients in need of post-operative care. According to his son, 53-year-old patient Prafulla Mondol was so traumatized that he couldn’t recognize his whereabouts or remember who he was.

At 6pm in the evening the area around the hospital was still clouded over with suffocating black plumes of acrid smoke. But the political conflagration was only beginning. Calling the deaths an “unforgivable crime” West Bengal’s newly elected Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee ordered a probe into the blaze and canceled the hospital’s medical license. Six hospital administrators were arrested on charges of culpable homicide.

West Bengal state minister for public health engineering, Subrata Mukherjee, told reporters that the hospital authorities “did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients;” instead, “senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out.” The police too blamed the hospital administration for ignoring a warning two months back to upgrade their fire safety equipment. An AMRI representative denied the allegations, saying that the hospital had followed stringent safety measures. AMRI, one of Kolkata’s swankiest hospitals was set up in 1996 and was often ranked as one of India’s top hospitals.

Friday’s incident is being called the worst hospital disaster in the country’s history, but it’s hardly a rare tragedy in a nation where fire regulations are weak and often poorly enforced, especially in Kolkata, a former colonial capital of British India packed with crumbling, poorly maintained edifices. In January 2008, a fire in the congested wholesale market of Burrabazaar gutted 1,200 shops. Last March, a blaze in a 150-year -old building on Park Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, claimed 24 lives. Public buildings in other parts of the country are similarly ill-equipped. In 1997, 59 people were killed in a blaze in a New Delhi movie theater. A decade on, the families of those victims are still fighting to get justice. ARMI has promised compensation to families of the dead of about $4,000, but that’s unlikely to be the end of the story.  “[The] Law will take its own course,” says Banerjee, the Chief Minister, after the incident. “Those responsible for so many deaths will be dealt with seriously.”

with reporting by Kalpana Pradhan/Kolkata