It was as early as 1:45 a.m. Friday, Uttam Gupta insists, when he and a few other residents of a nearby basti noticed suspicious wreaths of smoke rising from one corner of the seven-storey annex building of AMRI hospital in South Calcutta that housed most of the hospital's critical care units.
Gupta, a construction worker, lives right next to the 12-foot high brick wall that separates his slum from what, until Thursday night, used to be one of Kolkata's most expensive, super-speciality hospitals.
He and a few other men from the neighborhood rushed over to the hospital gates to warn the security guards.
"But they didn't let us enter. They just brushed us away saying it was nothing to worry about," Gupta tells me, standing amid a soot-covered, glass strewn hospital compound nine hours later. Local residents, he says, waited around for another half hour or so, watching the smoke plumes get bigger and bigger and then took matters into their own hands.
Some of them dug a small hole in the wall and squeezed into the compound, the rest clambered over, tearing down part of the barbed wire to get through.
"We went and gave the guards two whacks with our sticks, only then did they start pulling out the ladders," he says.
Over the next two-and-a half hours, until cops and firemen finally showed up, a makeshift rescue team of some 50-60 people from the slum across the wall, and a handful of hospital staff, helped evacuate many of the patients trapped inside. (There were reportedly 160 patients in the 190-bed building.)
"I myself helped bring down seven people through the windows, by slinging them over my shoulder and asking them to hold on tight," says Gupta (seen here), who is only about 5 feet tall and rather skinny. "When the firemen came, they just stood and watched. They were initially too scared to go up. They are so badly trained they dropped one patient while trying to get him down. He died."
Image Courtesy: Ian Umeda