The AMRI Hospital tragedy: One year on

Last Updated: Sun, Dec 09, 2012 12:49 hrs

Kolkata: The charred remains of the annexe of the AMRI Hospital stands as a ghostly reminder of the fire that snuffed out 94 lives on Dec 9 last year. The families that lost their dear ones in the tragedy might have moved on, but the scars remain.

Sixteen people, including directors of the hospital, spent weeks behind bars worrying about their fate as the legal battle moved from one forum to another after the fire, in which mostly patients (some too infirm to move) were choked to death after inhaling toxic fumes.

Amid claims and counter-claims by counsel and the accused out on bail, there is a growing apprehension among victims' families that the guilty might go scot-free.

"They (AMRI authorities) are influential people with money power. The matter is already a year-old and the media frenzy has died. As time flies by, public memory will go dim and the guilty may escape punishment," Jayanta Bose, who lost his aunt in the fire, said.

Hope, despair, legal tangles follow hospital fire tragedy

However, public prosecutor Rajdeep Mazumdar, who has been diligent in his pursuit to prosecute the offenders, exuded confidence of the guilty getting punished.

The West Bengal government, led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, not only paid Rs.300,000 as compensation to the victims' kin but also promised a job to a member of each family. But due to bureaucratic bottlenecks and legal hurdles, most of the intended beneficiaries are yet to get the jobs.

The compensation announced by the hospital had also been stayed after it was argued in court that the payments might influence the witnesses.

"The chief minister had promised a job but in spite of regular visits to various government offices, I'm yet to get any papers. The officials concerned have been ignoring us," said Paritosh Das, who lost his brother in the disaster.

Many of the families had lost their sole bread winners in the fire and the only hope in sight was the job, but indifference of the government officials has left them in the lurch.

The victims' families had formed The Human Health Right Forum (HHRF) - an association to fight for their rights - but the body is almost defunct now. However, some of the members are still eager to fight.

"I have heard that there are plans to reopen the hospital and use it for other commercial purposes. But I will not allow that to happen. I will fight tooth and nail against it and I'm sure others will join me too," said Ranjan Dey, who lost his father to the toxic fumes.

A year after the disaster, the state government asserts that a system has been put in place to prevent recurrence of similar incidents, but there are some who doubt the claims.

"Most of the hospitals including the renowned ones have standardised their fire fighting facilities and are in a position to handle any fire-like calamity. The fire-fighting ability of our department has also been modernised," Fire and Emergency Services Minister Javed Khan told IANS.

However, ventilation expert Amitabh Sur told IANS that none of the hospitals had facilities for smoke management. He said smoke dampers must be installed and proper evacuation facilities made to prevent an AMRI rerun.

"While basic fire-fighting equipments have been put in place, there are no facilities for smoke management. It was the toxic smoke that killed people at AMRI, not the fire," said Sur of the Indian Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

"Moreover, there is no mechanism to ensure that all fire-fighting equipment are functioning properly," he said.

Despite the minister's claims, the government-run SSKM Hospital in the city has seen three minor fires within a span of months, albeit without causing any loss of life.

"SSKM is a British-era hospital and the wiring has suffered wear and tear. Though there has been upgradation, short circuits have been causing the fires," said Khan.

In the wake of repeated fires at SSKM, as a preventive measure, two fire engines are stationed at all government-run hospitals in the city from eight in the evening till the next morning.

One year after: Victims' kin, survivors still in shock

Dhananjoy Pal, who lost his teenaged daughter this day a year ago in the AMRI hospital fire, laments why it was his "little girl" and not he who was choked to death.

"I wish I was admitted instead of my daughter. Then she would still be alive," said Pal, the father of 15-year-old Prakriti.

Ninety-four people were killed in the fire that ravaged the seven-storey centrally air-conditioned annexe at the premier private hospital in the city

The spark started in the wee hours of the morning of Dec 9 in the hospital's basement and left behind death and devastation as the resulting flames and fumes spread to the upper storeys.

Most of the victims - seriously ill patients too infirm to move - died a slow and painful death inhaling toxic fumes.

For their near and dear ones, several of whom were witnesses to the tragedy, life changed forever.

Pal's daughter was scheduled to be discharged a day later. But the father could never imagine what fate had in store for his family. The parents now live with memories of Prakriti.

"She was an all-rounder. She painted beautifully and had she been with us, she would be preparing for her board exams. We took her there (AMRI) because we wanted her to get the best treatment, but she never came back," said Pal, whose daughter was in the building's third floor following a head injury.

"Her mother has never really stopped crying," said Pal.

Rangan Dey, 25, whose father was among the fire victims, says it has been a "drastic change" overnight.

"It was a shock. We are still coming to terms with his loss. My mother is still broken," said Dey, whose father too was to be discharged the next day.

For Alok Chakraborty, coping with the absence of his 67-year-old brother-in-law, Jawahar Lal Ganguly, and picking up the threads of life again has proved to be a "slow" process.

Ganguly had been admitted to hospital after tests showed signs of cerebral attack. He had begun responding to medication following admission.

"We are going about our daily life but mentally we are still struggling. We are trying to move on but life has been slow," said Chakraborty, vice president of the Human Health Right Forum, a group formed by relatives of the fire victims.

But for Pal, letting go and moving on seems impossible.

"How can I let go? She was just a teenager. I was there right from the time the fire broke to the time I cremated her body. Every night, the image of her body being consumed by the flames flashes before me."

Ahana Chatterjee, 88, was one of the lucky few who managed to escape the inferno.

According to her grandson Abhrodip Ganguly, she has not spoken about that night since then.

"Although she was lucky to have survived, she is not the same woman. She used to walk around and go to the kitchen to cook, but now she is not that active. It's emotional trauma.

"It's hard to believe the authorities were so callous. They played with so many lives," said Ganguly.

A year after, the kith and kin of the departed and those who were lucky enough to be saved live for a cause.

"The thought that drives me to live every day is that no one else's daughter should suffer the same fate. If I can prevent such a thing from happening again, I will fight till the end," said Pal.

Governor urged to keep AMRI Hospital closed

A patients' group on Sunday appealed to West Bengal Governor M.K. Narayanan to initiate necessary steps so that the AMRI Hospital does not reopen until those responsible for the ghastly fire that killed 94 in the medical facility a year ago are brought to book.

Claiming that efforts were on to reopen the medical facility, People for Better Treatment (PBT) president Kunal Saha wrote to Narayanan on the first anniversary of the Dec 9, 2011, tragedy.

"I request you to take necessary steps to make sure the hospital cannot reopen and start making profit from the vulnerable patients until all pending cases against the hospital are concluded and those who were responsible for this horrendous human calamity are brought to equitable justice," Saha said.

Ninety-four people were killed in the fire that ravaged the seven-storey centrally air-conditioned annexe at the premier private hospital in the city.

A spark started teh fire in the early hours of the morning of Dec 9 in the hospital's basement and left behind death and devastation as the resulting flames and fumes spread to the upper storeys.

Most of the victims - seriously ill patients too infirm to move - died a slow and painful death inhaling toxic fumes.

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