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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kolkata slumdwellers break down the walls that divide

AMRI Hospital disaster

It was business as usual in Panchanantala slum in South Kolkata that afternoon. Men were at work, some hawking fruit or sawing pieces of wood, others grabbing a siesta before returning to work. Women busied themselves washing utensils or clothes in front of their home while children shouted with laughter, disappearing through the maze of crowded lanes crisscrossing the rows of shanties. Teenage girls dressed in printed gowns went about their daily chores, barely casting a glance at strangers like us wading through the garbage and puddles of water, a little lost and unsure. The routine ordinariness in Panchanantala  concealed the fact that less than 34 hours ago, these very same people had sprung into action to create history of sorts: men, women and children had emerged from their shanties and rushed, spontaneously risking their own lives, to rescue patients trapped in a high-rise hospital building engulfed in poisonous smoke.     

December 9 dawned ominously upon the city with more than 90 people suffocating to death in a hi-tech hospital, the worst tragedy in a medical institution in the country. When in the wee hours of Friday, two women in the slum smelt smoke and were alerted by the screams for help from patients of the hospital overlooking the slum, they immediately raised an alarm. It was a little past 2 am, but within minutes young boys and middle-aged men from the slum rushed to the gates of the Advanced Medical Research Institute (AMRI), a well-known hospital in south Calcutta, to help rescue operations, only to be rudely turned away by the hospital security guards who bolted the gates to prevent their entry.  “We implored  the guards that there was a fire and patients were crying for help. They said they were taking care of the situation and demanded that we leave,” said Bappa Das, a class X student in the local school. 

Undeterred, the men cut through the barbed wire and made a hole with shovels in the 10-feet-high brick wall surrounding the hospital and separating it from the slum. Even as a blanket of thick smoke engulfed the annex of AMRI where serious patients in special care units and orthopaedic cases were housed, the men constructed crude bamboo ladders to climb the high walls and women made ropes of their saris and dupattas to aid the effort. Two hours later, at 4 am, the fire brigade arrived with manual ladders and no breathing apparatus. But even before the fire brigade and the police could get into the act of rescuing patients from the top floors of the hospital, the slumdwellers had scampered to the top floor on bamboo poles, water pipes and wooden ladders rushed from the slum, and braved the blinding smoke to drag out patients who were gasping for breath. In the din and chaos of darkness enveloped by the poisonous gas and screaming patients, groups of slumdwellers joined by the fire brigade, police and some hospital staff realised the worst-affected were the patients on the fourth floor, surrounded by monitors and drips and innumerable medical equipment. “We could see all around us the evidence of patients who had dragged themselves to the windows and shattered the glass panes in order to breathe and escape death, but had failed,” said Bappa.  

Many patients survived the trauma and were rushed to nearby hospitals, others were not so lucky. Among the dead were two young nurses from Kerala who made valiant efforts to save their patients while two young boys of Panchanantala’s rescue team are still battling for life in a city hospital.  Senior officials both from the police and fire departments have acknowledged the role played by the locals in saving the lives of many AMRI patients. “They were with us throughout the day, evacuating the patients and reaching the hospital gates long before us,” admitted a senior police officer of the local Lake thana.  “They were tremendous. Simply tremendous.”

It was the local slumdwellers, against whom the high walls of the hospital were built, who proved to be the saviours, the Good Samaritans, that fateful morning. Gurupada Mandal, a mason, was watching Vidya Balan gyrating in The Dirty Picture promos on TV when we met him on Saturday afternoon sitting on a bed that covered the matchbox-sized room. Hiding his annoyance at being disturbed, he did not understand why he should be interviewed for what he thought was an ordinary act. “My wife woke me up and urged me to go and help patients who were screaming for help. Without thinking I ran and called my neighbour. Together, we took a shovel to break a hole in the wall.  Since I am a mason I have bamboo poles and with some rope we tied them together and made a ladder to climb the hospital building,” said Mandal in a matter-of-fact tone.

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Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.


Magento Development said...

All information about Kolkata slumdwellers are really fact.

viji said...

Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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