KOLKATA, India — Medical staff at an Indian hospital abandoned their patients and fled for safety early Friday as fire and smoke poured through the building, leaving 73 people dead, many from smoke inhalation, officials said.
As rescuers scrambled to evacuate survivors, police filed a case against the hospital in the eastern city of Kolkata for violating safety procedures. Top government officials vowed to hold the hospital accountable for the tragedy, and began proceedings to cancel its license.
"It's a very serious offense, and we will take the strongest action," Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of the state of West Bengal, said at the scene.
Firefighters on long ladders smashed windows in the upper floors of the AMRI Hospital to pull trapped patients out before they suffocated, 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 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.
The fire killed 73 people, including three hospital workers, said Satyabrata Upadhyay, a senior vice president of the AMRI hospital company. The remainder of the dead 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, Upadhyay said. The expensive AMRI private hospital was recently rated one of the best hospitals in the city by an Indian magazine.
The blaze erupted in the building's basement, and heavy smoke quickly engulfed the hospital. The cause of the fire was not immediately known.
The fire and the smoke was first noticed by people living in a massive slum close to the hospital, according to witnesses. Some of them rushed to the hospital and raised an alarm, but security guards kept them back, saying there was a small fire in the kitchen and there was nothing to worry about. 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 hospitalized hours earlier after suffering a heart attack at home, and he was moved to a nearby hospital after the fire broke out for treatment.
The narrow streets in the neighborhood apparently made it difficult for the unwieldy fire trucks to get close to the building and for fire fighters 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 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 even smoke detectors failed to go off.
Sudipta Nundy, a local resident, 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 evacuated to other hospitals in the area, said Javed Khan, the state fire services minister.
But state officials said the hospital staff did nothing to aid in the rescue operations.
"It was horrifying that the hospital authorities did not make any effort to rescue trapped patients," said Subrata Mukherjee, state minister for public health engineering. "Senior hospital authorities ran away after the fire broke out."
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."
Sirhad Hakeem, a minister in the West Bengal government, said the hospital basement was being used as a storage area, although it was originally planned as a parking lot.
Associated Press photographer Bikas Das contributed to this report.