The night at GB Pant hospital when Srinagar drowned

While Pulwama was drowning and thousands were running for their lives on the fateful night of september 6, GB Pant Hospital, the lone child-care hospital in the region, was packed with patients and attendants. Unaware of the catastrophe that was coming, doctors and nurses were working as usual. Jehlum was brimming with fury over the last two days, posing flood threats to the areas it streams through.
Authorities had sounded a red-alert in many areas of Pulwama and Srinagar. Although rains had stopped on September 6, but over 96-hour downpour and two major breaches in Jhelum embankments had made floods imminent in Pulwama and Srinagar. September 5 flash floods had already wreaked havoc in Anantnag and Kulgam regions, the rice bowl of Kashmir, damaging most of the crop. Inhabitants of Somurbugh, Pampore and Lasjan, which lie on Jehelu embankment were migrating to safer places along with their livestock, leaving back their homes.
GB Pant Hospital is situated on the other side of the Jehlum in the foothills of Zabarwan Mountain range, much of whose land has been taken up by Indian Army’s Badami Bagh Cantonment. Jameela, a 38-year-old skinny lady who works as a nurse, left home to report for work at the hospital on September 6 at around 3 pm.
It was raining, she recalls. Jhelum was flowing angrily. Her ailing father advised her against going to the hospital. Outraged, she turned down the advice. At the hospital, staff was doing normal business till late evening. Attendants were running after doctors to seek their intervention in treatment of their babies.
In the meantime, water was roaring towards southern parts of Srinagar city. "There were around 30 babies admitted in Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)," Jameela says. She says there was enough staff including registrar, senior doctors, interns and nurses to handle patients during night.
Sensing trouble, many attendants decided to leave hospital taking their sick babies with them. When attendants started to vacate, the hospital administration advised them against their decision, saying that they were much safer in their respective wards.
"We told the attendants that there is no flood threat and asked them to get back to their wards," she says.
There was a red-alert sounded by authorities in many areas of Srinagar after flood water started overflowing in Jehlum, breaching into residential areas at many places in Pampore and Pulwama. The localities of Shivpora and Sonwar, where GB Pant Hospital is situated, were also put on red-alert because of their proximity to Jehlum. Till midnight on September 6, water had not entered into hospital premises but attendants and doctors were preparing for worst. A specialized blood analyser was shifted to third storey. Along with her colleagues whose shift had ended, Jameela was preparing to sleep.
"By 2 am, we slept in our rooms but a bang on our door woke us up," Jameela says, "It was an attendant telling us that water has entered the hospital building. When we opened the window, the area looked like a lake. Water was everywhere. We tried to get down to the ground floor to save equipment and medicines, but water had submerged two steps of the staircase leading to the first floor," she says.
A state of chaos prevailed at the hospital. Babies were awakened by whispers and wails of attendants. Earlier, in the night, Dr Iram parked her car adjacent to a medical shop, considered to be a safe place. By 3 am it was floating in water. Till 5 am on September 7, half of the ground floor was submerged and by 7 am, water drowned the entire floor.
When the news of flood drowning city areas reached the hospital, the staff and attendants started shifting more equipment from ground floor to first floor. They could save some oxygen cylinders, medicines, computer and other things. "Everybody showed courage at the ground floor. Many equipment were damaged by water including X-ray machine and a generator which supplied electricity to the entire hospital," Jameela says.
She says a technician put his life in danger to switch-off the generator to avoid any short circuit, "He swam through the waters to switch off the generator."
Doctors tried to reach medical superintendent Dr Munir Masoodi on his phone but they were unsuccessful. GB Pant’s registrar, Dr Sartaj, who was in-charge of the hospital, could only talk to Masoodi for a few minutes before his phone went out of reach. He was seeking Masoodi’s help to arrange some boats to rescue patients. Attendants and doctors broke windows demanding help from Indian Army boats who were ferrying their own men from Indra Nagar and BB Cantonment.
"Attendants were crying for help towards Army men throughout the day but they didn’t pay any heed. Instead they were busy in saving their own men on the first day," she complained.
Doctors had decided to combine NICU and PICU wards on the second floor to utilise the limited resources cautiously. With the hospital’s oxygen plant submerged, the administration was left with minimal oxygen supply. As oxygen cylinders started getting exhausted, babies were dying one by one. A total of 14 babies died during September 7 night. NICU and PICU was slowly emptying. After relocating patients to the nearby Army garrison, four more babies are reported to have died there. While the people of Srinagar were doomed by flood outside, attendants inside the hospital were searching for expired babies with mobile phone torches in dark in a newly set-up ward.
It was a nightmare for many parents to keep their dead babies in lap for whole night. "Some were crying while others were cursing their own lives. It looked like a mourning place, not a hospital. It was chilling to see people crying around us," Jameela shudders while recalling the night.
An attendant whose baby was also admitted in the hospital put up a brave face to help in packing dead babies through the night, "He was full of courage," Jameela says.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah who lives a mile away from GB Pant Hospital had no plans to send a rescue mission to retrieve the sick babies. With no sight of any immediate help, Dr Jaspreet and Dr Irfan tried to make a boat from the available material to get help from nearby Army garrison, but they failed. Only after 50 hours had passed that the doctors managed to get an Army boat. Both of these doctors helped in evacuating patients in the solitary boat to BB Cantt.
There were over 500 men including attendants, patients and hospital staff stranded for over 50 hours without any food and drinking water. It was a difficult situation. Many attendants who had come from far-off villages had brought rice bags to cook food but there was no light or water to prepare meals. Hospital canteen which was housed in ground floor was under water, leaving the stranded people with no food.
"We collected rice from attendants and mixed sugar with it to make it eatable. We couldn’t eat enough but it kept us alive. It tasted good," the nurse said with a smile.
For Dr Jaspreet and Dr Irfan, babies were the priority. Extra attendants were asked to stay which caused anger among them. "Many attendants tried to vandalise the furniture when there was no rescue team to evacuate them," Dr Jaspreet says, "Many attendants suspected that hospital staff has kept food inside lockers. They searched every locker for food."
"When all the sugar packets were consumed, somebody brought Tang juice powder to make a mixture with rice," Jameela says.
The tense atmosphere soaked water from everybody’s body. To quench the thirst, doctors decided to distribute D5 and DNS glucose bottles for drinking. "We were told to drink glucose if anyone feels thirsty. There was no water. Tanks were empty," she says.
Treating hungry babies was getting difficult for doctors, so they decided to stop antibiotic medicines to them. To avert any possible dangers or deaths, Dr Kaiser, a senior paediatrician of Kashmir, had advised to shift NICU and PICU wards to Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences but the job was difficult. "A couple of boats and on-time rescue could have saved many lives. Authorities were sleeping. They barely knew about the condition of people trapped inside the hospital."
It was frustrating for everyone to wait for the rescue teams. A nomad man was waiting for two days at window for a rescue boat with his baby in lap. The boat came only when his six-month baby breathed last. "Rescue boat had no importance for him now. His world was shattered," Jameela says.
Similarly, another parent who had twin babies in the hospital, lost one when his oxygen cylinder exhausted. "He was carrying dead baby in one arm and the living one in another. He was making rounds in the corridor out of helplessness," Jameela says, lost in thoughts of that fateful night, "We were helpless."
Jameela had not contacted her families for three days. A fear of having lost their loved ones back home was running through every individual there, "Maximum babies could have been saved if higher authorities had managed to retrieve them on time. No one came to help us. Child hospital should have been a priority."
Jameela managed to leave hospital after being stranded for more than 60 hours. She stayed at her colleagues’ home in Srinagar for three days and returned home after six days.
With entire Srinagar devastated by floods, it will take months, even years to make this hospital fully operational as floods have damaged vital equipment necessary in paediatric care.