KOLKATA, India - Medical staff fled as flames and smoke filled an Indian hospital early Friday, abandoning their patients to a fire that killed 89 people, officials said.
Police arrested six hospital officials on charges of culpable homicide, in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, ordered the hospital's license withdrawn. The hospital denied any violations of safety measures.
"It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients," said Subrata Mukherjee, West Bengal state minister for public health engineering. "Senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out."
As the fire raged, rescue workers on long ladders smashed windows in the upper floors of the AMRI Hospital to pull trapped patients out before they suffocated from smoke inhalation, while sobbing relatives waited on the street below. Rescue workers took patients on stretchers and in wheelchairs to a nearby hospital.
Moon Moon Chakraborty, who was in the hospital with a broken ankle, called her husband S. Chakraborty at home to tell him a fire had broken out.
"She had died by the time I reached the hospital," her husband said.
One survivor told Indian television she was sitting by the bedside of her mother, who was on a ventilator, when smoke came into the room.
"My mother was continuously telling me that she was feeling suffocated and uneasy," she said. "I kept ringing the bell for the nurse, but no one came."
Rescue workers managed to evacuate her mother more than two hours after the fire started, she said.
Emergency workers pulled 73 bodies from the building, and another 16 succumbed to their injuries later, said Danayati Sen, a top Kolkata police official.
Hospital officials said three of the bodies pulled from the building were those of staff members. The remainder were presumably patients and relatives who were aiding in their care. Rescue officials said many of the dead suffered from smoke inhalation.
At the time of the blaze, there were 160 patients in the 190-bed hospital annex, said Satyabrata Upadhyay, a senior vice president of the AMRI hospital company.
The loss of life was "extremely unfortunate and painful," but the facility followed strict fire safety measures, he said. He promised to give 200,000 rupees (about $4,000) to the relatives of the dead.
"We deeply sympathize and share the pain and agony of the family members of the patients admitted here," he said.
The expensive AMRI private hospital was recently rated one of the best hospitals in the city by an Indian magazine. However, safety regulations are routinely ignored at hospitals throughout India.
The blaze erupted about 3:30 a.m. in the building's basement, and heavy smoke quickly engulfed the hospital. The area was used for storage, but the cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The fire and the smoke were first noticed by residents of a massive slum close to the hospital, according to witnesses. Some of them rushed to the hospital and raised an alarm, but security guards stopped them, saying there was a small fire in the kitchen and no cause for worry. As the smoke enveloped the building, the slum dwellers joined in the rescue effort.
It took firefighters more than an hour to arrive after the blaze started, said Pradeep Sarkar, a witness. His uncle was in the hospital after having a heart attack and was moved to another hospital after the fire.
Narrow streets apparently made it difficult for fire trucks to get close to the building and for firefighters to bring in the big hydraulic ladders needed to evacuate those trapped inside. Eventually, they smashed the main gate to make way for the ladders.
Banerjee, the chief minister, said that while the fire brigade was delayed, police arrived quickly to help with the rescue effort.
Patients and relatives complained that hospital staff did little to help and that smoke detectors failed to go off.
Sudipta Nundy said his brother-in-law Amitabha Das was being treated for an infection at the hospital. He died by the time rescuers arrived at his smoke-filled ward.
"He would have survived had hospital authorities allowed outsiders in early to evacuate the patients," he said.
Dozens of fire engines eventually arrived at the hospital. By midmorning, the fire was under control and most of the patients had been moved to other hospitals, said Javed Khan, the state fire services minister.
But state officials said the hospital staff did nothing to aid in the rescue operations.
"It's a very serious offense, and we will take the strongest action," said Banerjee.
Not all patients said they were abandoned.
Jyoti Chaudhary, a patient in his late 60s, was lucky to survive. "With the help of a hospital worker, I came down the staircase and later was moved to a nearby hospital."