(Eds: recasts intro) Nashik/Mumbai, Apr 21 (PTI) At least 22 COVID-19 patients on ventilator support suffocated to death on Wednesday when their oxygen supply stopped suddenly because of a malfunction in the main storage at a civic-run hospital in Nashik in Maharashtra, officials said.
The dead included 11 men and an equal number of women.
The government will probe if the tragedy at the Dr Zakir Husain Hospital was due to negligence, Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said.
A private company looked after the tank maintenance at the hospital, District Collector Suraj Mandhare said, adding technicians closed the tank valve preventing more deaths.
Three days before the tragedy, the Union health ministry's COVID-19 data compiled between March 16 and April 15 from major cities showed Nashik the worst-hit city in the country in terms of cases per million residents.
Wednesday's disruption of medical oxygen supply was caused by leakage from a storage plant, officials said.
Of the 150 patients admitted to the hospital, 23 were on ventilator support at the time of the incident while the rest were on oxygen support, a senior civic official said.
The municipal corporation shifted cylinders from other facilities in the city to help the patients at the hospital after the leak, which was noticed around 12.30 pm, an official said. Hospital officials then contacted municipal commissioner Kailash Jadhav seeking technical help to stop the leakage.
A 13 kilolitre oxygen tank was set up on the premises of the hospital, located in the Dwarka area of Nashik.
'Around 10 am, a socket of the oxygen storage tank broke and the leakage started. When the hospital staff came to know about it, they deployed jumbo cylinders to supply oxygen to the patients and started shifting some of the patients,' an official said.
The leakage has been stopped, the tank repaired and the oxygen supply is being normalised, he said.
Soon after the incident, people rushed to the hospital hindering rescue operations.
'An oxygen tanker had reached the hospital premises when the leak happened. Technicians who came with that tanker and technicians at the hospital broke open the lock of the tank and closed the valve which prevented the further leakage of oxygen,' he said.
Tope said the 22 patients died due to a low supply of oxygen caused by the leakage from the storage tank.
All of them were on ventilator support, the minister said. The family of each deceased will be given financial assistance of Rs five lakh each from the CM relief fund.
'The liquid oxygen which was filled in the tank has the temperature of around (minus) 180-degree celsius. There is extreme pressure on the walls of the tank which supplies oxygen to patients on ventilator support,' Tope said.
Jadhav said no patient is in a serious condition now.
The oxygen level was around 25 per cent in the storage tank at the time of the incident, he said.
Two oxygen tanks were set up at the hospital recently and the maintenance work was given to a private company.
An official said the incident occurred when oxygen was being filled in one of the tanks from a tanker, which disturbed the supply to the patients who were on ventilators as well as to those dependent on oxygen for breathing.
Leela Shelar, who lost her 60-year-old mother in the tragedy was inconsolable. 'My mother was admitted on Tuesday and put on ventilator support,' she said.
Shelar said as her mother complained of difficulty in breathing, she had requested the nursing staff to help, but they didn't pay heed.
'I didn't admit my mother here to die like this,' she said while fighting back her tears.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari expressed anguish over the tragedy.
Police dispersing a crowd of onlookers and the entry at the hospital was restricted after the incident.
Nashik police commissioner Deepak Pandey said people's emotions are intense, adding arrangements for adequate police deployment have been made. The area has been sealed, he added.
A video of oxygen purportedly leaking from the storage plant went viral on social media in the morning.
Relatives of the deceased reached the hospital soon after hearing of the incident and are demanding that stringent action be taken against those responsible for the tragedy. PTI ND COR DC NP NSK VT VT VT