Fifteen Covid patients in the intensive care unit of a private hospital in Virar (west) near Mumbai died Friday, at least 11 of them in their sleep, after a faulty air-conditioning unit triggered a small blast and a major fire that gutted the entire ICU ward around 3 am, officials and police said.
“The fire was put out within minutes, but 13 of the 17 patients (in the ICU) had died by then,” said Kishore Gavas, Deputy Commissioner, Vasai Virar Municipal Corporation. Two more patients died after being rescued and taken to another hospital.
Officials said the fire broke out at Vijay Vallabh Hospital, a 108-bed four-storey multispeciality facility that started functioning five years ago. “A probe is underway. We are looking at everything, their occupational certificate, fire clearances, and whether there was any negligence,” Gavas said.
Sanjay Kumar Patil, DCP (Zone 2), said: “We have registered an FIR against unnamed persons. These are the owner, administrators, doctors and staffers of the hospital.”
The police have obtained CCTV footage, which shows that the fire broke out around 2.35 am. The camera functioned till 2.37 am after which it got destroyed in the fire, police said.
“In the FIR, the municipality has alleged that necessary precautions and safeguards were not taken by the hospital, which led to the incident. We have asked the fire department to give us their report. We are also finding out if the owner had all mandatory licenses to run the hospital,” Patil said.
The police are also inquiring if there was “overloading” in the electricity connection and have recorded the statements of five hospital staffers so far.
At the time of the incident, officials said, there were 85 patients in the hospital, which had been converted into a dedicated Covid facility earlier this year along with 15 other hospitals under the municipal corporation. The fire was doused by 3.45 am, officials said, after which all the remaining patients were shifted to other facilities.
The dead have been identified as Uma Kangutkar (63), Nilesh Bhoire (35), Pukhraj Vaishnav (68), Rajni Kadu (60), Narendra Shinde (58), Kumar Doshi (45), Janardhan Mhatre (63), Ramesh Upayan (55), Pravin Gauda (65), Amey Raut (23), Shama Mhatre (48), Suvarna Pitale (64), Supriya Deshmukh (43) and Shivaji Vilkar (57).
This is the second serious incident inside a Covid facility in the state this week. On Wednesday, 24 patients died at a hospital run by the municipal corporation in Nashik after oxygen supply was disrupted due to a leak in the main storage tank.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has ordered a probe into the Virar incident and announced compensation of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of those who died and Rs 1 lakh each to critically injured patients. Maharashtra Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil tweeted that DGP Sanjay Pandey has been asked to conduct an enquiry and submit a report.
The families of the victims blamed the hospital for negligence and apathy. “We got to know at 7 am after watching the news. Nine members of my family tested positive and seven were admitted here. Six recovered but my sister was being treated here for the past 45 days,” said Ganesh Tandel, a Nalasopara resident and brother of Shama Mhatre, one of the victims.
“She had fully recovered and we were happy she would be discharged soon. Strict action has to be taken against hospital authorities,” said Tandel (42), while breaking down.
Sneha Choudhari, whose husband Rohan Choudhari was admitted on Saturday, said: “Nobody from the hospital called us. My husband called my father-in-law and said he is being shifted.” She said her husband’s oxygen saturation level has dipped after the incident, and that doctors at the hospital where he was shifted to don’t know what medication he was on.
Hospital authorities, police and witnesses said two patients in the ICU ward, who were awake and near the door, noticed “sparking” from the air-conditioning unit and rushed out. Hospital staffers managed to pull two more patients outside, they said. The blast happened within seconds of the “sparking” and the subsequent fire gutted the ward, they said.
According to the hospital’s Chief Administrative Officer, a fire audit was conducted in January. “On Thursday, following a patient’s complaint that the AC was not cooling the ward, a technician was called for routine maintenance. The technician repaired the AC, after which it was working fine,” said Shailesh Pathak, CAO.
According to Pathak, the suspected cause of the fire was a short circuit in that AC’s compressor. “We suspect the blast was triggered by oxygen supply in the ward. But we are waiting for the fire probe report to understand what happened,” he said.
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