Six medical officials have been arrested on charges of culpable homicide after staff fled a fire in a seven-storey hospital in India which killed 89 people, police said.
Authorities have accused staff of abandoning many patients to die of suffocation from the smoke which engulfed the building during the blaze at the private AMRI hospital in the eastern city of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta.
The six charged with culpable homicide were directors from the hospital company who surrendered to officers, according to police.
Dwellers of a nearby slum who first noticed the smoke and fire rushed to the hospital to raise the alarm but security guards kept them back, saying it was only a small blaze, witnesses said.
Patients and relatives complained that hospital staff did little to help and that smoke detectors failed to go off.
It took firefighters more than an hour to respond, said Pradeep Sarkar, a witness whose uncle was taken to hospital. Some of the slum dwellers helped with the rescue.
The neighbourhood’s narrow streets apparently made it difficult for fire trucks to get close to the building and to bring in big hydraulic ladders. Eventually, they smashed through a main gate to make way.
Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, ordered the hospital’s licence withdrawn. The hospital denied that any safety measures were violated.
Subrata Mukherjee, West Bengal public health minister, said: “It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients.
“Senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out.”
The hospital expressed regret over the deaths, and denied any violations of safety measures.
As the fire raged, rescue workers on long ladders smashed windows in the upper floors to pull trapped patients out before they suffocated, while sobbing relatives waited on the street below.
One survivor told Indian television she was at the bedside of her mother, who was on a ventilator, when smoke started filling the room.
“I kept ringing the bell for the nurse, but no one came,” she said, adding that rescuers managed to evacuate her mother more than two hours after the fire started.
Sudipta Nundy said his brother-in-law, Amitabha Das, who was being treated for an infection, died by the time rescuers arrived.
“He would have survived had hospital authorities allowed outsiders in early to evacuate the patients,” he said.
Moon Moon Chakraborty, who was in the hospital with a broken ankle, called her husband at home to tell him a fire had broken out.
“She had died by the time I reached the hospital,” her husband said.
Not all patients said they were abandoned. Jyoti Chaudhary, in his late 60s, said a hospital worker helped him down a stairway.
The fire killed 73 people, including four hospital workers, and sixteen others died later from their injuries, according to rescue officials.
At the time of the blaze, there were 160 patients in the 190-bed hospital annex, Satyabrata Upadhyay, a senior vice president of the AMRI hospital company, said.
The loss of life was “extremely unfortunate and painful”, but the facility followed strict fire safety measure, he added, and promised to give 200,000 rupees (£2,400) to the relatives of the dead.
“We deeply sympathise 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.