At least 24 COVID-19 patients on life support died after a leak in a medical oxygen tank disrupted the supply of the gas at Dr. Zakir Hussain Hospital in Nashik, Maharashtra, on Wednesday.
Attributing the leak to a valve malfunction, State Health Minister Rajesh Tope said a high-level inquiry had been ordered to ascertain if negligence had caused the tragedy.
Sources said the tragedy unfolded around 10 a.m. when the tank was being refilled after the oxygen level went down. The massive leak caused disruption in the vital oxygen supply for at least half-an-hour. A fire brigade team had to be rushed to the hospital to contain the leak.
Mr. Tope said 61 of the 157 patients in the hospital were in a critical condition and required oxygen.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, expressing grief over the incident, announced a thorough inquiry. “The kin of every patient who died will receive a compensation of ₹5 lakh. I appeal to the people not to indulge in any kind of politics,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Thackeray said the tragedy showed the need to be careful in the struggle against the pandemic. “We have been facing the pandemic for more than a year now and the available doctors and medical staff are working day and night to save lives of patients… Such incidents should not happen in the future. The administration will have to work very carefully to prevent any such occurrences that could erode the morale of the health personnel,” Mr. Thackeray said.
The Chief Minister said he had instructed the Chief Secretary to immediately investigate and to determine responsibility so that hospitals in no other district could report oxygen leaks.
Nashik Collector Suraj Mandhare said the tank belonged to a private vendor. “Apparently, technicians tried to fix the valve when low pressure caused the leakage. This led to the deaths of 22 critical patients who were on ventilator support. My deepest condolences to the kin of the deceased,” he said.
The Acknowledging the anger and grief felt by relatives of the deceased, the Collector urged people to maintain restraint and assured that a thorough probe was under way.
“Currently, the other patients are being supplied oxygen from the repaired tank. They are in a stable condition, as per medical authorities,” Mr. Mandhare said.
Chaotic scenes erupted on the hospital premises as relatives of patients converged on the scene of the tragedy. They accused the Nashik Municipal Corporation authorities of not giving them proper information on the incident.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed anguish over the incident. “The tragedy at a hospital in Nashik because of oxygen tank leakage is heart-wrenching. Anguished by the loss of lives due to it. Condolences to the bereaved families in this sad hour,” he tweeted.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also condoled the deaths of the patients. Mr. Gandhi urged the Maharashtra government to provide all assistance to the affected.
The tragedy comes at a time when Maharashtra, the worst-hit State in India in terms of COVID-19 cases and fatalities, is reeling under an acute shortage of oxygen.
Local Shiv Sena leader Sudhakar Badgujar, who was among the first to reach the spot of the accident, expressed fears that the death toll could rise.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Council Pravin Darekar said that the Nashik civic body authorities were to blame for negligence and demanded a case of culpable homicide be lodged against the NMC Commissioner. “One cannot pin the blame for this tragedy just on mere technicians. The NMC authorities and the State government is equally to blame for this,” Mr. Darekar said.
The BJP is in power in the NMC.
The fact that no BJP representative reached the accident spot soon drew accusations of callous politicking on part of the saffron party from several quarters.
“There is no question of playing politics here. Devendra Fadnavis (Leader of Opposition in the Legislative Assembly) and myself are available for people 24 hours a day. In this case, it is clearly NMC authorities who are to be blamed for negligence,” Mr. Darekar said.
BJP State president Chandrakant Patil said that this was not the first time that such incidents had been reported in Nashik and across the State. He urged Mr. Thackeray and the Maha Vikas Aghadi government to “get its act together” and make sure such incidents did not occur again.
Along with Pune, Mumbai and Nagpur, Nashik has witnessed massive case spikes and COVID-19-related deaths in both waves of the pandemic. The district, which has been recording an average daily spike of 3,000 cases, has around 45,000 active cases at present, while its total death toll stands at 2,672.