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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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DAWN AT DEATH DOOR

- Chaotic, smoky inferno then is now a desolate necropolis

You could hear the whisper of the wind in this silence of a cemetery. A seven-storey cemetery emptied of its living folk.

Even the dead have left, hurt by the heartlessness of humans.

Somewhere in the dark a dog growled, a low, querulous moan of disapproval. It had got used to the handful of policemen and the deathly quiet, but who were these two intruders in this shuttered ghost town?

AMRI Annexe I, which till last week returned the sick from the point of no return, was now a padlocked address. A skull-and-crossbones poster stared back from the wall near the locked gate.

A wreath hung on the iron grille.

How fast things can change. But it wasn’t like this even seven days ago — 168 hours to be exact.

If Friday the 16th, 5.30am, resembled a desolate necropolis, Friday the 9th, 5.30am, was a smoky, chaotic inferno of bell-tolling fire-tenders and wailing ambulances; trained firemen and untrained rescuers; snaking ladders of hope and inconsolable search for a known face; glass-crunching blur of desperate fists and mad scramble from lung-choking toxin.

Why 5.30am? That was the time Metro had reached the scene of the tragedy, still hidden behind a curtain of thick smoke.

In this soul-chilling December dawn, nothing remained of that frenetic Friday, when 90 people, almost all snug between the covers of specialised care, suffocated to death in the multi-storey gas chamber.

“Thank you AMRI for not caring,” read another poster.

Only the broken windows of the hospital told a mute tale of tragedy. Strips of tenuous sheets, the last straws of escape, hung from windowsills.

An early riser, from the shanty town just under the shadow of the now-shut south Calcutta health point, ambled up, toothbrush tucked inside his cheek.

It was from this shanty town that help had come first when the fire brigade was yet to be alerted and the giant Bronto skylift had not reached out its long hydraulic arm to the trapped patients.

Bleary eyed, but curious, the man edged closer. What picture was the photographer, knee bent, taking? Hadn’t they taken enough? What was there now to click?

A woman, shawl wrapped around her head, hurried past, lest she too became part of the sullen frame.

A burly policeman, hands in his pockets, stood near the barricade at the mouth of the lane that leads to the hospital.

The police had cordoned off the lane after a protest by residents of the area.

AMRI, Dhakuria, has since shut shop. Seven of its directors are in custody. So angered was the public mood that one association of lawyers had decided not to defend any of the accused in court.

“The result of accumulated curses,” said the able-bodied policeman, shaking his head at the hospital. Then he clammed up.

Yards away, an early-morning bus roared up the Dhakuria bridge before disappearing down the gradient on the other side.

Last Friday, as the toll rose with each passing hour, a row of heads had watched from the sidewalk of the bridge at the unfolding madness as firemen and volunteers strained muscle and nerve to bring down terrified survivors while police cleared the way for tankers and ambulances through the crush of people.

Seven days on, no heads peered down the bridge. They had moved on.

Crisis has a way of bringing out the best in some people, but it’s also a big spectacle. Nothing attracts like tragedy — when it’s not yours.

Only a few, like journalists and investigators, come back, one for the story and the other for clues.

At the barricade, one of the policemen sneezed, and a startled flutter of wings rose from a nearby tree.

The sky had cleared and little groups of people had gathered.

Another day had dawned, unnoticed.

Seven days on, what are your thoughts on the AMRI tragedy? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com