The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fire mocks rescue cries Delirious guard on key hunt

The frail fingers with deep burns kept combing the hospital floor while the dark eyes darted around, desperately.

In the New Casualty Block of Calcutta National Medical College, 12 hours after the devastating fire on Topsia Road, Sheikh Khalil continues to search for the keys to unlock the building ablaze. The keys that the guard had dropped while trying to unlock the collapsible gates. The keys that, if recovered in time, might have saved a few lives.

On Wednesday afternoon, lying on the floor of the casualty block, the 41-year-old durwan kept doing in a state of delirium what he was last seen doing at the blaze site — groping for the bunch of keys near the collapsible gates of 33C Topsia Road.

Khalil, from Murshidabad’s Kandi sub-division, had suffered 60 per cent burns, less than most others injured in the Topsia fire. He lay in the New Casualty Block, draped in sheet and gauze.

“Cutting through the thick fumes, when I reached the exit, I saw Khalil struggling to open the lock. Then, the bunch of keys dropped to the ground and he panicked. As Khalil dropped to his knees, combing the ground for the keys, the leaping flames engulfed him from behind. I don’t remember anything else,” mumbled Sheikh Abdul Malik, sharing floor space with Khalil in the hospital ward.

When junior doctors turned up to take a closer look at Khalil, they looked concerned at his condition. “He needs to be shifted immediately,” said one, before administering an injection.

Khalil then calmed down and slipped into a deep sleep, his hands no longer groping for the lost keys. Half an hour later, he was shifted to NRS Medical College.

“Since we don’t have a burns unit here, we have decided to shift out six of the 13 patients admitted here. They need specialised care for their severe burns. Khalil is one of them,” said Mrityunjoy Mukherjee, superintendent of the medical college.

As the shadows lengthened and politicians — led by Mamata Banerjee — poured in, the authorities struggled to arrange for the shift.

“Can you please tell them that my son can’t breathe and he needs to be shifted out'” pleaded Sadat Hussain sitting with his son Anwar on the floor of the Casualty Block. “He called me up to say ‘Abba, aami purey gechhi, amake banchao. I hope I can save him.”

nTinderbox terrain, P 23

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