December 9,8 a.m. Dr K,as he is known among colleagues and friends,had a week to go at work before he went on leave. With a surgery to remove a tumour in his neck lined up in less than seven days,he had been asked to take it easy.
I usually dont watch TV in the morning,but that day,for some reason,I thought it would help me relax. The first channel that flashed had gruesome pictures of a hospital on fire and patients crying out for help, he says. After about 15 minutes,as the gravity of the tragedy at AMRI hospital in Dhakuria,Kolkata,sunk in,Dr Bishwanath Kahali,HoD of Forensic Medicine at Kolkatas SSKM Hospital,rushed to work.
When such a fatal accident happens,unfortunately,we are the ones to step in, says the 57-year-old doctor,sitting in his office adjoining the hospital mortuary on Sunday,two days after one of the worst fire accidents in the country left over 90 people dead.
That day,Kahali reported to work at 9 a.m. and,along with mortuary assistant Bijoy,started making arrangements. With no television to update him about the mounting toll,Kahali made rough estimates and got to work right awayhe got about 200 plastic sheets,sterilised his equipment,opened the mortuary doors.
Then began what seemed like an endless wait for the bodies to arrive. We didnt discuss the tragedy…it is never wise,it makes us emotional. And in our line of work,we have to keep a cool head, says Kahali.
By 10 a.m.,two others in his team had joined him. With the toll mounting,one of the doctors suggested they spread white sheets outside the mortuary. We have a capacity of 20-25 bodies. My colleague,Dr Majumdar,came in and said we would need to make more space,since many people
had died. Finally at noon,we got a call from the Lake Police station. The bodies would start arriving any minute.
The wait lasted another hour,at the end of which two ambulancesthe first of many more that daywith nine bodies reached the hospital. Kahal told his assistant Bijoy,Dont stop any family members,dont hurry them. And arrange for a notice board,we have to get somebody to put up a list of the dead.
Kahali then went to his office adjoining the mortuary and shut himself inside for 5-6 minutes,like he always does before autopsies. People often ask me if I pray,if I crywhat is it that I do when I hurry into my office before the autopsies. I simply get into the mode,as I call it. If at all I pray,it is only before I set off to workI pray that no one dies, he says.
By 2 p.m.,40 bodies had lined up and 39 of them had been identified. One of the doctors in Kahalis team took picturesthe bodies in rows of seven,all seemingly identical,wearing light blue hospital gowns,their faces covered in soot. Kahali and his team got down to work.
It was hard to keep track of the timetwo hours,four,seven… and the routine never changed. Photographs were taken,the soot was dusted off the face samples,the blackened carbon was put away and the bodies were cut open. A pace maker,stitches in the brain,plasters in the legs…every body told a story. I simply watched and interpreted,as though it was a conversation, says Kahali. Carbon monoxide poisoning,asphyxia,the bodies told him.
At 9 p.m.,a police officer asked to meet the doctor and Kahali took his first break. The day had turned into night but SSKM Hospital was in chaosrelatives grieving the loss of their loved ones and anxious faces crowding around Kahalis noticeboard. Bijoy,put up another listjibonotoder list (list of those alive), Kahali called out to his assistant. Jibontoder list? In his 12 years at the hospital,Bijoy says later,he had never seen a list of the living on the morgue bulletin board. Dont waste time,talk to the police. Tell them I told you to, Kahali called out to Bijoy before heading out to meet the investigating officer.
Kahali recalls how a young man stopped his way. You are a doctor. Have you seen my mother among the bodies you cut open, the young man,his face pale,asked. Kahali says the man took out a photograph of his mothera woman in a red sari,not much older than the young man.
How many done?the police officer asked Kahali as they met. 45. 45 already? Ajke ki ar parben? (will you manage any more today),the officer asked him. Ami na parle,ei shob lokera kikore jabe? (I dont,how will these people go?), Kahali asked.
Kahali had more instructions for Bijoy. Put up pictures of unidentified bodies on the notice board. We can do the post-mortems faster if the identification is done.
After 15 minutes,Kahali got back to the morgue. After a few hours,I was wondering if I should just collect sample viscera (samples of internal organs) from some bodies now. They would all tell the same story, Kahali recalls.
But the rules say he must preserve body parts of each one of them. There wasnt a single burn injury,not even an inch, he says.
At 1.30 a.m.,the body of a 15-year-old girl was brought in. Most of the dead were old. There were some young victimsthey mostly had fractures and were in their late 20s-30s. But this girl was very young, he recalls.
An hour later,two young nurses were brought in,back to back. I am not an epidemiologist,but sometimes I cant help analysing. If it is a young body,I feel bad. I am not expected to, he says,a wan smile across his face.
At 4.45 a.m. and after 84 bodies,the team finally emerged out of the mortuary. The crowd had dispersed and SSKM was deserted. What had kept him going? The relatives,they cant bathe till the last rites are completed. I dont like to keep the dead waiting in the morgue. They must go ahead and we are the only roadblock they face, Kahali says.
In 1988,Kahali was a young doctor when he was part of a team that had to do post mortem on 130 bodies after a road accident at Barrackpore. I thought then that it could not get worse. People could not die more helplessly. But life always throws surprises, the doctor says.
Six days after the fire,Dr K is admitted to the hospital for his tumour surgery. Life goes on, he says just before checking in as a patient.