On the night of 6 August, a fire broke out in the Viswanathan Chest Hospital—the hospital wing of Vallabhbhai Patel Chest Institute, a post-graduate medical institution maintained by Delhi University and funded entirely by the ministry of health and family welfare. The hospital caters to patients with chest diseases, and its facilities include an intensive care unit with eight beds, which is situated on the first floor of the hospital. The fire broke out in a server room that was located on the ground floor, directly beneath the intensive care unit. Members of the hospital’s medical staff told me that the smoke had spread to the first floor and into the ICU, in which there were six patients undergoing treatment. At least three of them died that night.
According to the records of the Delhi Fire Service, it received an SOS call from the hospital at 1.48 am on 7 August. The record stated that fire engines from its Roop Nagar fire station, located around two kilometres from the hospital, were dispatched within two minutes. The firefighters left the hospital at 4.35 am, the records note. However, it also notes that there was “no casualty reported.”
The fire service’s records appeared to corroborate the account of a member of hospital’s non-medical staff. Nobody knew exactly when the fire broke out, but according to the staff member, smoke began emanating from the server room a little after 1 am. The server room is a part of the PACS Workstation room—the picture archiving and communication system, which houses the hospital’s medical imaging technology—and was locked at the time, the staffer said. After noticing the smoke, the staffer and a few members of the medical staff tried to break the door down. They were unsuccessful, the staff member told me. “The smoke was not reducing,” the staffer said. “The gallery below”—on the ground floor—“was covered in smoke.” “This is a hospital for respiratory diseases. The patients were facing a lot of difficulties when the smoke began to rise to the first floor,” the staff member added.
I spoke to several members of the hospital’s staff, including three members of the medical staff, two of whom were on duty that night. The medical staff spoke to me only on the condition of anonymity. The two members of the staff who were on duty told me that the level of smoke could have asphyxiated the patients. “There was smoke all around, nothing was visible,” the first member of the medical staff told me. The second member of the medical staff said that, judging by the amount of smoke, the fire may have started an hour before it was noticed. “Neither any fire alarm nor any fire sprinkler was set off,” the second medical staffer added. “There was also no water in the fire hose reel and the fire extinguishers were also not working.”
The third member of the medical staff I spoke to said she was the caretaker for one of the patients who died that night. I also spoke to the family members of the two other deceased patients, who were present when the fire broke out. Both families spoke of the amount of smoke in the hospital—they said it was causing itchiness in the eyes of the healthy occupants of the building. According to the hospital’s admission and discharge register, all three patients who died that night were supported by ventilators.