A public hospital in western India where nearly a dozen Covid-19 patients died of suffocation or severe burns lacked essential safety equipment, a preliminary police investigation found.
On Saturday, the fire in an intensive care ward at a government-run hospital in Ahmednagar district, Maharashtra state, killed 11 coronavirus patients who were fighting for their lives on ventilators.
Six others were injured in the fire that gutted the newly-built dedicated ward at Ahmednagar Civil Hospital, about 250 kilometres east of the state capital Mumbai.
Police said nine victims died due to asphyxiation while two patients had severe burns.
“Only fire extinguishers were installed while most of the other safety measures were missing,” Ahmednagar Municipal Corporation's chief fire officer Shankar Misal told The National.
Mr Misal said sprinklers, fire alarms and hydrants were not installed, possibly delaying the process of extinguishing the fire.
CCTV images showed the smoke filling the ward after the fire erupted in the ceiling that carries oxygen and air conditioner fittings, he said.
Fires at hospitals have become a regular hazard at Indian cities since the coronavirus pandemic broke out.
More than 100 patients have died in more than two dozen hospital fires across India since August 2020 that experts blamed on stretched health services.
Jyoti Gadkari, a police investigator, told The National that a manslaughter investigation into the incident was under way, while a separate inquiry by the state government would seek to determine the cause of the fire.
No arrests have been made in the case yet, she said.
Television footage on Saturday showed thick black smoke billowing from the hospital ward as doctors and attendants raced to rescue patients.
A security officer said the rescue operation was tough because most of the patients were on the life support machines.
“We were unable to move fast as most of them were critical and were either on ventilators or oxygen support. We lost a lot of time,” the officer said.
Hospital authorities said the victims were aged between 60 and 85, with most of them recovering from the disease.
Sandeep Harpude, 36, whose 65-year-old father Ram Kishan Harpude died in the blaze blamed the hospital for negligence, saying there were no safety measures to fight the fire.
“I was waiting outside the ICU ward when suddenly I heard cries and shouts … there was a fire in the adjacent ward. Within a few minutes, the entire ICU unit was engulfed by smoke,” Mr Harpude told The National.
Mr Harpude said his family was devastated by the loss as they expected his father to recover from the disease. They cremated his body on Sunday.
“He died of suffocation … his oxygen pipe was broken. His condition was not serious and would have been discharged in two or three days, but he died because of the hospital's negligence,” he said.
Maharashtra state has announced a cash compensation of 500,000 rupees ($6,739) and promised a thorough investigation into the incident.
India's underfunded public health system almost crumbled in a second wave of coronavirus surge in April-May this year.
Thirteen Covid-19 patients were killed in a fire at a Mumbai clinic in April, followed by another hospital blaze days later took 22 lives.
Another 16 Covid-19 patients and two nurses were killed in a blaze at a hospital in Gujarat state in May.