- - Friday, December 9, 2011

Kolkata, INDIA — Medical staffers abandoned their patients and fled for their lives as a fire swept through a private hospital in Kolkata early Friday, killing at least 89 people, most of them patients at the five-star medical facility, witnesses and local authorities said.

Authorities ordered the arrests of six hospital officials at the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI) on charges of culpable homicide. Hospital Vice President Satyabrata Upadhayay denied any wrongdoing, noting that three of the dead were hospital staff.

About 160 patients were in the hospital when the blaze began about 3:20 a.m., spreading across the building and spewing flames and noxious fumes. People waved white bed sheets from the windows, while some with broken limbs crawled away to save themselves.

Authorities said most of the 89 victims died of asphyxiation.

“We counted scores of bodies that were brought to the government run SSKM Hospital,” said Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal state, of which Kolkata is the capital.

Ms. Banerjee ordered the arrest of the hospital officials, including top Indian industrialists. This was the second fire at the premier private medical facility in three years.

Local people said that hospital authorities stopped them from entering the building to rescue people. There were reports that no fire alarms sounded, no fire-extinguishing system deployed, and firefighters initially were not allowed to enter the basement.

A sobbing woman who lost a close relative in the fire told The Washington Times that hospital staff had left the patients to die instead of saving them.

“More hospital staff would have been injured then. They left the patients in the lurch,” said the woman, who was too distraught to spell her name.

Another victim’s relative, who identified himself as Sudipto Nandy, said his brother-in-law died because hospital authorities locked the gates and prevented would-be rescuers from entering the building.

Thick black smoke engulfed the the building till noon. Firemen were forced to smash through windows to enter the hospital to rescue the people and allow air to circulate.

Fire officials could not determine the immediate cause of the fire, but said it began in the basement of an annex building on the hospital campus.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that victims and their families would receive compensation from the government.

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