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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Sudden blaze, flaming death

Barun Ghosh will never forget Friday afternoon. The man in his late-20s watched his 22-year-old nephew Apurba burn to death in the eatery-turned-inferno at SSKM Hospital.

“He was screaming for help and trying to break open the iron grille of the window. There was fire all around and his body was aflame,” Ghosh recounted tearfully.

“He desperately tried to get out of the room but there was no escape. The door was on the other side of the burning room. Soon, Apurba’s body became still and I knew he was dead.”

Minutes earlier, it was business as usual for Barun and Apurba, who worked at Amantran, the eatery run by the Society for Comprehensive Rehabilitation Service in the hospital. About 20 customers, most of them relatives of patients, were having lunch when the fire started.

“Around 12.45pm, we heard a sound from the kitchen and saw the flames,” said Mohammad Fayaz, who came for a check-up at the cardiology outpatients’ department. People ran out immediately, abandoning the food.

It was a close shave for cook Nirmal Kumar Bera. “I had finished cooking and had gone out for a bath,” he said. Swapan Dutta, another cook, had taken over and was cooking rice and curry.

The kitchen was divided into two parts. In one part, the meals were being cooked, while tea and snacks were being prepared in the other part. In an adjoining room, there was a small bed for the staff to rest.

“Apurba told me he was going to lie down for a while,” said Seema Ghosh, an employee of a public phone booth near the eatery run by the same NGO.

The blaze also took the life of Laltu, who was resting in the room with Apurba. According to Bera, Laltu was to visit his parents at Basirhat, in North 24-Parganas. “He had a haircut and a shave and was in a good mood.”

Roma Ghosh, Ruksana and Balaram Mondal were at work in the kitchen, preparing tea and snacks. “The fire started suddenly and engulfed the room within seconds. But I was able to run away,” said Roma, who escaped with minor injuries.

Ruksana fainted after inhaling the smoke and had to be admitted to the hospital. Mondal could not find a way out and died.

The relatives of patients and other visitors helped the firemen douse the flames.

“Our main concern was the other cylinder. If it had burst, then the toll would have been much higher,” said a fireman. He and his colleagues dragged out the cylinder as soon as they made it inside.

The charred bodies of Apurba and Laltu were brought out around 1.45pm. “I can’t believe they are dead. We were speaking to them a hour and a half ago,” said Bera.

Hours after the flames had been put out, the kitchen was emitting heat. The fire had melted the ceiling fan. Tables and chairs lay overturned as the fleeing customers and staff had left them. Outside, food was scattered around the large metal oven.

“If there was an explosion, this oven would have been blown to pieces, causing even more damage,” explained a forensic expert.

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