(Eds: incorporating related stories) By Charles Salve Bhandara, Jan 9 (PTI) In a horrific tragedy, ten newborn babies died after a fire broke out at the neo-natal care ward of the district general hospital at Bhandara in eastern Maharashtra in the early hours of Saturday.
The staff managed to rescue seven of the 17 babies in the ward.
While the cause was suspected to be a short circuit or a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit and the state goverment ordered probe by fire experts, a BJP leader alleged that there were complaints about power flucuations in the ward but no action was taken.
Health Minister Rajesh Tope said a six-member committee headed by director, Health, Sadhana Tayade will conduct an inquiry and submit a report in three days.
Those responsible shall not be spared, chief minister Uddhav Thackeray said. A fire audit of all the hospitals in the state has been ordered, he informed.
Calling the incident 'heart-wrenching and mind- numbing', Thackeray announced aid of Rs 5 lakh for family members of deceased babies.
The deceased infants -- eight girls and two boys -- were aged between one month and three months, and most of them were admitted to the ward for being underweight, a doctor said.
One of the deceased baby boys had been found abandoned in a remote area of the district and admitted to the hospital last week. In a cruel twist of fate, the unnamed child became the victim of fire.
Minister Tope told reporters that three of the ten infants died of burn injuries while seven others died of suffocation caused by smoke.
According to doctors, the blaze erupted in the Special Newborn Care Unit of the hospital around 1.30 am.
District civil surgeon Pramod Khandate said a nurse noticed smoke coming out from the neo-natal section -- which needs continuous oxyygen supply -- and alerted doctors and other staff who rushed there and tried to douse flames with fire extinguishers before fire brigade arrived.
They managed to rescued seven children from smoke- filled ward but ten others perished in the tragedy, he said.
The cause of the fire in the four-storey building is yet to be ascertained but could be short circuit, he said.
Shubhangi Sathavne and Smita Ambilduke, the two nurses who were on night duty, said they heard explosion-like sounds in the neo-natal ward.
'When we rushed inside, smoke filled up nose and eyes.
We could not see anything, but heard glass shattering. We raised alarm and with the help of security guards and fire brigade staff rescued seven of the children,' they said.
'The government has ordered a high-level probe to find out if a short circuit or the air conditioner malfunctioning was the reason,' said state home minister Anil Deshmukh.
Experts of National Fire Service College and the Visvesvaraya National Institute of Technology will conduct investigation, he said.
Former Maharashtra energy minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule of the BJP claimed that relatives of the infants had complained about power fluctuations in the ward last week.
'The relatives had asked the hospital staff to check electric switches etc, but apparently no action was taken,' Bawankule told PTI.
He also alleged that the hospital didn't have proper fire safety equipment, and a proposal to purchase fire safety equipment worth over Rs 1 crore sent to the health department was pending for approval.
Photographs from the ward showed blackened walls, floor thick with ash, and charred furniture.
Unbearable pain was seen in the eyes of parents of deceased children as they grappled with the calamity.
'We had not even named our daughter and now we have got her burnt dead body,' said Vishwanath Behere, a labourer, as his wife sobbed.
Vandana Shedam (28) said she lived in the hospital itself as her seven-day-old daughter was admitted to the neo-natal ward for being underweight.
'We came to know about the fire around 2 am but had no idea of the condition of my baby till 8 in the morning. Then they put her burnt body before me,' she said, weeping.
The tragedy evoked condolences from President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and others.
'Heart-wrenching tragedy in Bhandara, Maharashtra, where we have lost precious young lives. My thoughts are with all the bereaved families. I hope the injured recover as early as possible,' Modi tweeted.
In his tweet posted in Hindi, President Kovind said, 'I am deeply saddened by the untimely death of infants in a fire accident in Bhandara, Maharashtra. My heartfelt condolences to the families who lost their children in this heart-wrenching event.' Rahul Gandhi appealed to the Maharashtra government to provide all possible assistance to the families of the deceased and the injured. The Congress is a constituent in the Shiv Sena-led state government.
Terming the death of ten infants a 'very painful' incident, former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis demanded a thorough probe. PTI CLS COR MR ND VT NSK KRK KRK