NEW DELHI — To all appearances, the Advanced Medical Research Institute hospital in Kolkata was state of the art. It had some of the latest, most precise radiation therapy equipment for patients in its cancer center. It offered special deluxe suites for its wealthiest patients. Its trauma surgery unit was said to be one of the best in eastern India, as well as its highly efficient emergency room.
But early on Friday the hospital, known as Amri, confronted an emergency for which it seemed to have no plan: an inferno in its basement that transformed the entire hermetically sealed and air-conditioned building into a giant chimney for a searing, smoky fire.
When the smoke cleared, 94 people were dead, scores more were injured and a nation was left asking: Is nowhere, even an expensive, privately run hospital designed for the country’s upwardly mobile classes, safe from the disaster that seems to lurk on every railway line, highway on-ramp and festival ground?
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, summed up the mood when he sent this message on Twitter: “Every time I see incidents like #AMRI I’m convinced we really are a 3rd world nation with delusions of greatness.”
There appeared to be many reasons why the fire in the plush 180-bed hospital in Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, which started in the basement early on Friday morning, roared out of control for many hours and produced such catastrophic results. Ineptitude, poor equipment and bad information helped compound what initially seemed like a minor blaze.
The doctors on duty fled the hospital almost immediately, leaving patients stuck in their wards and at the mercy of the billowing black smoke, witnesses and patients told reporters. Local people who tried to get inside the hospital to help rescue patients said they were turned away by security guards who assured them it was only a small kitchen fire.
Hospital officials were slow to call the Fire Department, and then fire trucks were slow to arrive, hospital officials said.
In fact, it took firefighters more than 12 hours to subdue the blaze, Fire Department officials said. The hospital’s fire detection and suppression system did not function, Fire Department officials said.
Six senior hospital officials were charged with culpable homicide in connection with the fire, according to government officials.
The blaze is sure to raise fresh questions about safety in India’s booming private hospital business, which, like much else in India, is poorly regulated.
The hospital had recently been named one of the city’s best by The Week, an Indian magazine that regularly ranks hospitals. Like many such hospitals in India, the Advanced Medical Research Institute offered expensive Western-style facilities to middle- and upper-middle-class Indians who have shunned government hospitals, which are crowded and less well equipped.
Firhad Hakim, West Bengal State’s minister of urban development, arrived at the scene at 5 a.m. to find dozens of firefighters standing around, unable to get inside. “The smoke was so thick and black that it was not possible to enter into the hospital,” Mr. Hakim said.
Witnesses and patients described a chaotic scene of underequipped firefighters struggling to rescue patients trapped in the building.
The hospital was storing diesel and motor oil in the basement, he said. Fueled by these volatile elements, the fire sent plumes of searing, pitch-black smoke into the upper floors via the elevator ducts, Mr. Hakim said. Patients, many of them bedridden, had no way to escape. The mirrored glass windows did not open.
The facade of the building was made of thick glass, which firefighters struggled to break. Finally, they used a ladder to reach an upper floor, where they were able to break the glass and vent some of the smoke. But by then it was 7:30 a.m., and the fire had been pouring smoke into the hospital for almost four hours.
“Whoever they brought out, most of them were dead,” Mr. Hakim said.
A fire division officer at the scene, A. Banerjee, said: “All the deaths took place because of suffocation. Nobody died because of fire.”
He added that “the hospital fire control system was not in good shape” and that “the hospital staff was not trained in dealing with such situations and they did not have any experience of such situations.”
S. Upadhyay, a senior executive at the hospital, said that the building had smoke detectors and fire extinguishers installed, and that they conformed to fire safety regulations. “I do not know the nature of the fire,” Mr. Upadhyay told reporters. “We’re inquiring into the incident. All the fire systems were in place.”
West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, spoke to relatives of the victims, who gathered outside the hospital to wait for news of those trapped inside. Many sobbed and screamed as patients were brought out of windows and on gurneys.
Ms. Banerjee pledged a thorough investigation of the fire. “We will take appropriate action for this grave crime,” she told reporters outside the hospital.
Nikhila Gill contributed reporting.