The isolation unit for coronavirus patients at United Hospital was makeshift, it lacked fire safety measures and was built in violation of the Bangladesh National Building Code, fire service officials said yesterday.
A devastating fire, which started from an air-conditioning unit in one of the four rooms there, killed five senior bed-bound patients, who could not get up and escape, on Wednesday night.
"This extension was built in violation of the building code. The hospital authorities did not seek fire security clearance from us when building the extension. While the main hospital has a fire licence, it was also necessary for them to get a similar clearance for the annexe," said Debashis Bardhan, deputy director (Dhaka division) of Fire Service and Civil Defence.
He claimed the fire service department did not even know that such an extension was built.
"The main building had a fire hydrant but this extension did not. The extension did not have a fire exit either," he said.
A fire exit is mandatory for structures providing healthcare services, according to the latest (2015) revision of the Bangladesh National Building Code.
Also, depending on the structure, the exit has to be a fire door capable of resisting fire for two to three hours. Fire hydrants are also mandatory.
One of our correspondents who visited the spot yesterday reported that the makeshift structure was made of metal wall panels, and the interior partitions were similar to plywood.
Also, the construction material used was of flammable nature, Debashis said.
Meanwhile, Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor Atiqul Islam yesterday inspected 11 fire extinguishers used in dousing the flames and found that eight of them passed their expiry dates.
"The partitions and rooftops were all made of flammable substances," said Mayor Atiqul. "The hospital authorities should have thought about fire risks when constructing this extension."
He added, "They should have sought the expertise of the fire department before building this annexe."
The mayor also said a team trained to fight fire at United Hospital was hesitant to enter the annexe as it was an isolation unit for coronavirus suspects.
While the mayor thanked United Hospital for taking in coronavirus suspects, he said that all makeshift coronavirus hospitals must be made keeping fire safety measures in place.
"The government will have to take action against them if the investigation concludes that negligence happened. It is the reality," the mayor said.
The Building Construction Act provides for a punishment of seven years' imprisonment or a fine of Tk 50,000 or both in case of violation of the Bangladesh National Building Code and Building Construction Rules of 2006.
Meanwhile, a witness said there was inadequate fire-fighting measures inside the hospital.
Andre Dominic Paul's father Vernon Anthony Paul, 75, was one of the patients who perished in the inferno. Andre watched the fire happen from beginning till the end.
He was waiting outside the isolation unit around 9:40pm hoping to see a doctor when he heard a commotion; but he saw the door fling open and doctors and nurses file out.
The air-conditioner in the doctor's room sparked, spitting flames everywhere. "The sparks fell on the floor and a ward staffer rushed in with a wet mop to smother the electric fire, but the mop probably had disinfectant on it, so the fire spread in a split second from the floor to a bed with paper files on it," he said. The ward staffer threw the mop away and ran out.
"They had no fire extinguishers inside the coronavirus unit, and they had to bring in fire extinguishers from the main building, which took some time, allowing the fire to spread. The fire hydrant was also in the main building and the hosepipe was too short to reach the flames because the isolation unit was further away," he narrated.
United Hospital authorities said the fire spread quickly, "as it was windy".
Meanwhile, fire service officials said oxygen cylinders inside the isolation units exploded and fed into the fire.
"Some of the patients died of asphyxiation and the others died by burning. They were all found lying in their beds," stated Abul Kalam Azad, senior station officer at Baridhara fire station.
"The fire service arrived at 10:04pm and by that time explosions could be heard. There was no scope of saving the patients."
The victims were Vernon Anthony Paul; Riyajul Alam, 45; Khodeja Begum, 70; Md Monir Hossain, 75; and Md Mahabub, 50. Of them, Vernon Paul and Khodeja Begum's blood samples came out negative for coronavirus and they were meant to be moved to the normal sections of the hospital, had the tragedy not occurred.
"My mother was brought here the day before Eid with asthma. She had a coronavirus test 15 days ago, but the result came out negative. But because the test was taken 15 days ago, the hospital suggested she be kept at the isolation unit," said Khodeja's son Mohammad Alamgir.
They got a second test done two days ago at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, and the results came negative yesterday. "Yesterday [Wednesday] afternoon, we approached the doctor to shift our mother and they were preparing for the transfer. We were at our home in Maniknagar when we heard about the incident. By the time we arrived, my mother was reduced to a dead body. We had to recognise her by the jewellery she was wearing," said Alamgir.
"The patients inside were all bed-ridden and therefore they could not escape. The doctors, nurses and staff could," said Dr Shagufa Anwar, chief of communication and business development at the hospital, addressing journalists yesterday afternoon.
The government has formed a four-member panel headed by Debasish Bardhan to investigate the incident.
United Hospital too is doing its own investigation and submitting a report on Sunday, said Dr Anwar. "We have formed an internal committee of 12 people, with personnel from security, human resources department and clinical management."
The hospital also filed a case with the Gulshan Police Station, reporting "unnatural deaths".
"This is just a temporary establishment. I am not aware whether we needed to get a fire safety clearance for this emergency structure," said Maj Mohammed Moinul Hossain, manager of administration and security at United Hospitals Ltd, when asked why they did not get a fire safety clearance from the department concerned.
He could not state for sure how many fire extinguishers were inside the isolation unit.
"There were fire extinguishers in the area adjacent to the isolation unit, which is about 20 or 25 metres away. We also had a fire hydrant in the main building, but the fire hydrant can only reach a certain extent, following which we need the help of professional fire fighters," he said. "Besides, the fire got too big to handle in a very short amount of time."