Traffic mismanagement, a delayed fire call, and only a single exit in the building – these were some of the major challenges that firefighters faced while trying to douse the flames that engulfed a building in outer Delhi’s Mundka on Friday.
At least 27 people died in the Friday blaze, and only eight have been identified so far, as the other bodies are charred beyond recognition.
Three people, including the owner of the four-storey office complex, have been arrested by the Delhi Police.
Four days after the fire, The Quint spoke to the Delhi Fire Chief Atul Garg and two fire divisional officers who were a part of the firefighting operation about the many problems they encountered late Friday afternoon.
'Received Call 70 Minutes After Building Caught Fire
As per eyewitness accounts, the four-storey building caught fire at 3.30 pm on Friday. The Delhi Fire Service (DFS) chief, however, said that a fire call was only received at 4.40 pm – 70 minutes after the first flame was spotted.
MK Chattopadhyay, 56, a fire divisional officer at the DFS, told The Quint, “I reached the spot within minutes along with six-seven fire tenders. When I reached there, I saw that the whole building was on fire; the ground, first, second and third floors were on fire. This indicated that the fire had been raging for a while.”
The gap of 70 minutes, in which several people were rescued by locals, including a crane operator, led to the fire intensifying, making it harder for the firefighters to begin rescue operation.
Sandeep Duggal, 50, another fire divisional officer with the DFS, said that usually, when such a massive fire take place, the service is inundated with callers "who are mostly passers-by."
This time, however, "it wasn’t the case."
Duggal added, “It’s puzzling. Did the public not take this seriously? If anyone calls the police or an ambulance service, a call reaches us via the police and the ambulance service. Even that didn’t happen.”
Both Chattopadhyay and Duggal said that a tragedy of this scale could have been avoided had a call been made sooner.
“In firefighting, each second is precious. I had my best men ready to go in but the fire was so intense that we couldn’t step inside for at least 90 minutes after we reached there,” said Chattopadhyay.
'Fire Tenders Got Stuck in Traffic, Complete Mismanagement by Traffic Police'
When Chattopadhyay reached the spot after the first fire call was received, he was accompanied by six-seven fire tenders. “Other fire tenders were on the way. The ones that reached on time had a capacity of 2,500 litre water each. The bigger fire tenders that have the capacity of 16,000 litre each were stuck in a traffic jam near the spot,” he said.
The building is located on the main road in Mundka. The road is prone to heavy traffic, and as per Chattopadhyay, a request was sent to the traffic police to empty one lane out just for the fire tenders so they can quickly move in and out.
“I dialed 112 and made the request, but this wasn’t done. At first, we managed with the fire tenders we had, and had access to an underground water storage at the nearby metro station,” said Chattopadhyay.
He said that onlookers also jammed the road near the building, as they took photos and videos of the fire. Duggal said that the delay in arrival of more fire tenders throughout the evening meant “being careful with the amount of resources available. The time lag led to severe damage.”
DFS chief Garg said that at least 30 fire tenders and over 150 fire fighters spent at least 10 hours dousing flames, attempting rescues, and then cooling the building.
'Single Exit, No Fire NOC, No Fire Safety Equipment in Building'
Chattopadhyay claimed that the DFS has “no record of the building whatsoever.”
He said, “When a building is to be constructed, a plan has to be sent to the MCD. The MCD in turn forwards that to us. In this case, no such plan was sent to us.”
He said that there are “thousands of such buildings in Delhi” that do not have the fire nod. “How will things improve in Delhi if this goes on unabated,” he asked.
Apart from lack of any NOC, Chattopadhyay, who was inside the building with his team, said that he did not see any fire safety equipment such as a hose reel, water tank or a fire detector.
“All these are mandatory and we didn’t see any such arrangement. If a detector was there, it could have alerted people on time and saved many lives,” he said.
Both Duggal and Chattopadhyay said that the building should “have compulsorily had a second exit.”
Access to the building when all floors were up in flames was impossible, and hence a “Bronto sky-lift” – an aerial hydraulic platform that goes as high at 40 metres – was used. “We used this immediately to douse the flames from outside. This machine is used to tackle fires in high-rises mostly,” said Chattopadhyay.
Firefighters were equipped with three-layered suit, gumboots, lock cutting equipment, breathing apparatus, firemen’s axe and ceiling hooks.
Since there was no second exit, the firefighters broke the wall of the building from the building next to it to gain access. “No second exit means that those who are stuck inside do not have any option to get out. It also means we, firefighters, don’t have any other way of getting in. It’s a huge hazard,” said Duggal.
Duggal said that “black smoke” got accumulated in the staircase making it impossible for people to leave. On the other side of the building, there was an uncontrollable blaze.
“When we entered the building, we saw that all the goods were gutted, chairs were hollow, and bodies piled up near the door of the second floor. They had no way to leave. If only there was a second exit,” said Chattopadhyay.
'Glass Façade Turned Building Into an Oven'
That no such plan for the building was sent to the DFS also means that the owners went ahead with a decorative glass façade – without following the rules that exist for its installation.
Duggal said, “This toughened glass was purely decorative in nature. It was installed in one piece and did not have a single window. Its installation was not in accordance with the building bylaws that exist. It would have been hard for people to break that glass on their own, and since there was no window, it would have been impossible for the smoke to get out. This led to creation of an oven-like situation inside the building.”