Calcutta, Dec. 9: Three patients from Mizoram, who were trapped in the massive fire that killed 89 people, mostly patients, at AMRI Hospitals in Calcutta early this morning, owe their escape from death to something thats integral to Mizo life and culture — a bamboo pole.
The poles, which the patients said were reportedly in place to aid building repairs, served as their escape routes.
There were eight patients from Mizoram in the hospital when the fire broke out.
While three of them were safely evacuated to the hospitals unit at Mukundapur here, the rest were taken to Mizoram House at Ballygunge.
James K. Lalblakliana, 43-year-old engineer from Aizawl, recounts his experience:
In all my 43 years of life, I had never been this afraid. I was admitted to AMRI, Calcutta, to be treated for bad tonsillitis and mouth ulcers. Yesterday, I was unable to sleep because of a burning pain in my throat. I woke up from a troubled sleep around 4am.
I was tossing about for nearly an hour when suddenly I smelt smoke and heard the commotion downstairs. I ran out into the corridor where I saw thick black smoke everywhere. However, there was no hospital staff there to guide me, he said.
I realised there was something terribly wrong because the acrid fumes burnt my throat. I ran back into the room and shut the door immediately and tied a handkerchief around my mouth. By instinct I knew I had to steer clear of the fumes. I broke the glass panes of the windows and looked out, praying to god all the time.
All I could think of was my five sons and family waiting for me. I could see the fire-fighters below signalling to me. We were expected to use the bamboos as props to slide down, I could gather that.
I grasped the pole, sent up a fervent prayer to god and slid down with my eyes tightly closed. When I was safely down with my family, all I could do was laugh and cry. I had never laughed and cried at the same time. And I shall never forget last night, he said.
In the same ward, Jonathan Malsanwa, a 17-year-old Class XII student of Boston Higher Secondary School, Aizawl, wore a dazed look and winced each time a patient nearby cried out in pain.
Admitted to the hospital to be treated for hepatitis C three days ago, all he wants now is to be home for Christmas and listen to his favourite bands.
I was sleeping peacefully in my room on the third floor when my roommate woke me up from a deep slumber. I had absolutely no idea what was going on till my roommate ran out and so did I. I was half asleep and stunned to see black smoke all over the corridor. Moreover, we were not sure if any help was coming. Then we ran to the window to look for any escape route but it was difficult, as we were high up, Jonathan said.
What was worse, I could see downstairs that most people who were being brought out were wrapped in white sheets. We realised that they were dead but did not say anything to each other. Thankfully, the bamboo poles, which were put up for renovation at the hospital, served us well. The fire-fighters were using them to get the patients down to earth. I have a fear of heights but at that juncture it was either that or die. So we climbed out of the window, locked legs around the pole, gripped the pole and slid down. It was just like an adventure reality show but this one was real. Now I just want to go home. I will leave in another week or so.
Thanglupuia, another patient who is undergoing chemotherapy, was resting and unavailable for comment. However, his mother and friend said they were thankful that he survived the fire as well as the disease he was battling.
Zothan Mawii, a 60-year-old woman from Aizawl being treated for eye cancer, relived the horror of her struggle to find her way out of the hospital.
I was alone in a double bedroom on the third floor. I woke up around 4am and saw that my room was filled with smoke. When I got out into the corridor it was completely dark. I called my son, thinking I was going to die. I told him I would wait for someone to come and take me out of my room but no one came. My son told me to get a hold on myself and find my way down.
It is my ninth time here so I was familiar with the hospital. I headed for the main staircase and saw many other patients going the same way. I kept to the railing, covering my nose and mouth with my hand to keep out the smoke but it made me cough, she said.
All I could think while I tried to climb down the stairs in pitch darkness was that I would die in here. When I finally got out the relief was enormous. It was around 6am and my son, who had promised to be there when I got out, was there. I am grateful to be alive. It was a terror I wouldnt want anyone to live through.
There should have been more awareness among the nurses. There are supposed to be people awake all night. They did not even have smoke detectors, said Micky Zoginpuia, her son, who immediately took his mother back to Mizoram House in Salt Lake where they are staying.
Ram Das, uncle of 30-year-old Sampa Chowdhury who died in the fire, said, We are from Agartala in Tripura. My niece suffered injuries in a bus accident and was admitted here on November 11. I was staying in the waiting hall at night when I noticed the fire.
He and several others asked security guards to bring down the patients, he said.
But they did not pay heed to our request, he added.