At least 88 people have been killed after a fire swept through a hospital in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata.
The blaze, which started in the early hours of Friday in the basement of the seven-storey AMRI hospital, killed mostly patients, who were trapped by the smoke and flames.
Rescuers pulled 73 bodies from the building, said Danayati Sen, a top Kolkata police official. Another 15 people succumbed to their injuries.
Police arrested six hospital officials on charges of culpable homicide; 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.”
Suggesting that the fire had been sparked by criminally negligent behaviour, Mamata Banerjee, state chief minister, said it was a “serious offence” and that the authorities would “take the strongest action”. She ordered the hospital’s licence to be cancelled with immediate effect.
Authorities believe the fire was triggered by flammable materials such as oxygen cylinders that were stored in the basement.
Sadia Azim, a journalist in Kolkata, said the blaze was a “massive tragedy” for the people and the city. “It was total chaos [when the fire began]. There was smoke all around,” she told Al Jazeera.
Azim said there was was no fire-fighting equipment and that fire alarms did not work.
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, S Chakraborty, said.
Rescued patients and those who managed to escape said they had woken up to rooms full of thick, choking smoke.
“I was terrified, I kept shouting for help,” said Jyoti Chaudhary, who was admitted to the hospital a week ago.
“Finally, a nurse dragged me out of the ward and got me down to the ground floor,” said Chaudhary, who was then taken to the adjacent hospital wing.
Ananya Das, 34, bearing stitches on her stomach from minor surgery carried out the day before, said she was in post-operative recovery when the fire broke out.
“I managed to walk towards an exit and then climb out of a window. I saw a lot of bodies,” she said.
Ahmed Javed Khan, the disaster management minister for West Bengal, told Al Jazeera the toll might increase due to suffocation and asphyxiation.
Smoke hinders rescue
A fire incident at the same hospital in 2008 caused damage but there were no deaths.
Local television channels showed patients being rolled out on stretchers and distraught relatives waiting outside the hospital as a thick layer of smoke engulfed the seven-storey building.
A number of immobile patients were evacuated down the side of the building using a system of ropes and pulleys.
Two dozen fire trucks were sent to douse the blaze and evacuate the building, but thick smoke hindered rescue operations, officials said.
“The hospital is such that neither the ladders nor the fire brigades could get through … so the rescue operations got a little delayed and in that time the smoke had risen up to the higher levels,” Firhad Hakim, the state’s urban development minister, told reporters.
Several hundred angry relatives gathered outside the building as the rescue operation was ongoing, with some calling for the hospital management to face murder charges over the blaze.
“This was all down to the negligence of the hospital authorities,” said Swadesh Chakravarty, whose brother, a cardiac patient, was rescued alive.
Upadhayay, the hospital’s administrator, insisted that the hospital authorities had followed strict fire safety rules and conducted regular drills.
“All statutory safety and fire licences are in place,” he said.
The hospital has announced compensation of 500,000 Indian rupees [$10,000] for the families of each victim.
Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, expressed his “shock and anguish” at the loss of life.