IT WAS the first child for tribal couple Geeta, 20, and Vishwanath Behere, 22, of Bhojapur village adjacent to Bhandara city near Nagpur, born a year-and-a-half after their marriage. Weighing only 830 gm at birth, on November 10, their daughter never made it home, or got a name. She was among the 10 infants, aged between three days and two months, killed in a fire at the Bhandra District General Hospital’s Sick Neonatal Care Unit (SNCU) around 1.30 am on Saturday. The seven remaining newborns in the unit, all girls, were rescued.
Tears pouring, Geeta, who last saw her daughter on Friday evening, sat among relatives too dazed to speak, or to respond to efforts to console her. Vishwanath, who had just one glimpse of his daughter, at birth, saw her for the second time lying dead in the hospital, on rushing there at 4 am following a call, with “two burn marks”.
Breaking down, Vishwanath, who works as a labourer, says they were expecting her to return home in around a week.
“She was born underweight at a private hospital, and had to be rushed straight to the District Hospital. She had been gaining weight and was 1.3 kg now. She was set for discharge on attaining 1.5 kg.” Vishwanath adds that they had even argued with the hospital authorities to let them take her home. “But a nurse said we would be doing it at our own risk.”
While media was barred from entering the hospital, pictures emerging from inside showed the soot-covered walls and charred furniture of the SNCU. Health Minister Rajesh Tope, who visited the hospital, said that a short-circuit was the probable cause of the fire and that three babies had died of burns and seven of asphyxiation. Eight of the dead were girls.
The parents are all poor labourers or farmers from nearby villages. One of the deceased was a three-day-old boy found abandoned by the police at Lakhni town in the district.
All the babies who died were in the “out-born” section, where the babies born at other places but referred to the government hospital are kept. The rescued babies were all from the “in-born” section holding the children born at the District Hospital.
A senior doctor at the hospital said that while two nurses, a medical officer and a helper were in the ward, they may not have noticed the fire at first because “their view may have been blocked by glass partitions”.
The four-storey hospital has 482 beds, with over 300 more added last year for Covid treatment. While its building was constructed in 1981, the SNCU was a relatively new construction, inaugurated in 2015.
Yogita Vikrsh Ghulse and husband Vikesh, both daily wagers, lost their son, born on January 6. While he was 1.75 kg at birth, it wasn’t his being underweight that had led to the hospitalisation, said Yogita. “He was not able to breastfeed. So the Primary Health Centre asked us to bring him to the District Hospital. In less than 24 hours, he was dead,” she cried.
Yogita, staying on the second-floor ward of the four-storey hospital, came to know about the fire at the SNCU, on the first floor, around 2 am, when she noticed the smoke. “But we came to know about the death of our child only around 9 am,” she said.
Vandana Mohan Sidam’s daughter had been a week old, brought to the SNCU from a PHC being only 1.25 kg at birth. “They said I can take her home after she attains 1.75 kg.” Like Yogita, Vandana was staying on the premises, to breast-feed her daughter.
She realised something was wrong when she noticed a strong smell of burning electric wires along with the smoke. Her forehead tired with a piece of cloth, the 28-year-old, unwell and admitted at the PHC, demanded that those responsible be punished. Her husband Mohan, a daily wage worker in Kalyan, is on his way back home.
“The fire broke out around 1.30 am. At that time, there were two nurses and a helper in the children’s ward. They immediately raised an alarm. Before the fire brigade arrived, staffers tried to rescue the children and managed to save seven,” Bhandara Collector Sandeep Kadam told The Sunday Express, adding that rescue efforts were hampered by continuous explosions inside the ward.
District Civil Surgeon Pramod Khandate claimed the fire extinguishers were in place and functioning. “The staff used them, but there was too much smoke.” Crediting fire personnel and staff with helping rescue the babies, Khandate said the seven rescued babies, apart from patients in the ICU ward, dialysis wing and the labour ward were shifted safely to other wards.
However, no attempt could be made to rescue the infants till the fire brigade arrived and broke the glass on the windows of the first-floor unit by putting a ladder from outside. By the time, they entered the unit, it was half-an-hour from the start of the fire. “Our hospital staffers also suffered inhalation injury and chest discomfort. The entire ward was engulfed in smoke,” said a doctor from the Civil Surgeon’s office.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said they were probing whether a fire audit of the SNCU had been carried out. Calling the deaths “heart-wrenching”, he said the guilty shall not be spared. He also ordered a fire audit of hospitals across the state and announced Rs 5 lakh to families of the deceased infants.
The committee set up to probe the fire includes officials of power, health, engineering and maintenance departments. Headed by Dr Sadhana Tayade, Director of the Directorate of Health Services, it has been told to submit a report in three days.
Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh said the cause of the fire would be investigated by experts from the National Fire Service College and the VINT in Nagpur. He said they were looking at whether there had been a short-circuit or the air-conditioner had malfunctioned.
Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation Vijay Wadettiwar admitted that a proposal for fire safety equipment for the hospital had been pending since May last year and said they will find out what happened to it. However, he pointed out, the SNCU was inaugurated in 2016 by the then BJP government without requisite fire safety clearance.
Former Maharashtra energy minister Chandrashekar Bawankule of the BJP said the families of the children had complained to the authorities about the fluctuation in electric supply in the unit “but nobody took it seriously”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were among those who offered their condolences.
with inputs from TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA