NEW DELHI — A smoldering blaze ripped through an upscale private hospital in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, smothering to death scores of patients on Friday morning and injuring dozens more. At least 94 people died, according to government officials. The fire broke out in the early morning in the basement of the hospital, the Advanced Medical Research Institute, a 180-bed private hospital that opened in 1996.
Witnesses and patients told reporters that the doctors on duty had fled the hospital, leaving patients stuck in their wards and at the mercy of the billowing black smoke.
They described a chaotic scene of underequipped firefighters struggling to rescue patients trapped in a building that had become, in effect, a five-story chimney for a petroleum-fueled fire in the basement.
Firhad Hakim, West Bengal state’s minister of urban development, arrived at the scene at 5 a.m. to find dozens of firefighters standing around, unable to get inside.
“The smoke was so thick and black that it was not possible to enter into the hospital,” Mr. Hakim said.
The hospital was storing diesel and motor oil in the basement, he said. Fueled by these volatile elements, the fire sent plumes of searing, pitch-black smoke into the upper floors via the elevator ducts, Mr. Hakim said. Patients, many of them bedridden, had no way to escape. The mirrored glass windows did not open.
The facade of the building was made of thick glass, which firefighters struggled to break. Finally, they used a ladder to reach an upper floor, where they were able to break the glass and vent some of the smoke. But by then it was 7:30, and the fire had been pouring smoke into the hospital for almost three hours.
“Whoever they brought out, most of them were dead,” Mr. Hakim said.
A fire division officer at the scene, A. Banerjee, said: “All the deaths took place because of suffocation. Nobody died because of fire.”
He added that “the hospital fire control system was not in good shape” and “the hospital staff was not trained in dealing with such situations and they did not have any experience of such situations.”
Six senior hospital officials were charged with culpable homicide in connection with the fire, government officials said.
Ineptitude, poor equipment and bad information helped compound the tragedy. Fire trucks were slow to arrive, hospital officials said, and local people who tried to get inside the hospital to help rescue patients said they were turned away by security guards who assured them it was only a small kitchen fire. In fact, it took firefighters more than 12 hours to subdue the blaze, fire department officials said.
S. Upadhyay, a senior executive at the hospital, said that the building had smoke detectors and fire extinguishers installed, and conformed to fire safety regulations.
“I do not know the nature of the fire,” Mr. Upadhyay told reporters. “We’re inquiring into the incident. All the fire systems were in place.”
The hospital had recently been named one of the city’s best by The Week, an Indian magazine that regularly ranks hospitals. Like many such hospitals in India, the Advanced Medical Research Institute offered expensive Western-style facilities to middle- and upper-middle-class Indians who have shunned government hospitals, which are crowded and less well-equipped.
West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, spoke to relatives of the victims, who gathered outside the hospital to wait for news of those trapped inside. Many sobbed and screamed as patients were brought out of windows and on gurneys.
Ms. Banerjee pledged a thorough investigation of the fire.
“We will take appropriate action for this grave crime,” she told reporters outside the hospital.
Nikhila Gill contributed reporting.