The six people who died in the fire that broke out in Secunderabad's Swapnalok Complex on 17 March were trapped in a room next to a stairway, which was locked, said Assistant District Fire Officer, Hyderabad, Dhanunjaya Reddy.
"The building had four stairways in total – two big ones on one side and two small ones on the other. The six people who were trapped were close to one of the stairways. But it was locked due to security purposes – the owners did not want unauthorised people coming in. Also, firefighters found that a lot of waste, scrap material, wood, and paper was dumped on the stairway, blocking it," he told The Quint.
Had the stairway been unlocked, they may have been able to escape, said Dhanunjaya Reddy, who was overseeing firefighting operations at Swapnalok Complex.
Six people – all in their early 20s – died in the massive fire that broke out in the commercial building, and they were all employees of QNet franchisee Vihaan Direct Selling Pvt Ltd, which is under an Enforcement Directorate (ED) probe.
The fire originated in the electrical duct of the building and travelled up to the eighth floor.
A case of culpable homicide (not amounting to murder) has been registered against the QNet firm, two other companies, and the Swapnalok Complex Association for failing to maintain the fire safety systems in the building.
The Rescue Operation
Dhanunjaya Reddy said that 11 people were initially rescued from the building's fourth and fifth floors and the terrace. The fifth floor was most affected by the fire as it had combustibles like paper, wood, cardboard material, and computer systems.
"One person, who was also stuck on the fifth floor with the six trapped persons, called out to us through a window nearby. He was rescued with the help of a Bronto Skylift (a truck-mounted aerial platform). He informed us that others were on the same floor."
"But by the time we got through, they were all unconscious from smoke inhalation. Five people were found inside the office premises and one person was found in a washroom," he added.
They were declared dead while undergoing treatment at Gandhi Hospital and a private hospital nearby.
Recent Fire Inspection
"The Swapnalok Complex has a decent firefighting system. There are fire extinguishers, pipeline systems, pumps, 95 percent water in the tank, sprinklers, and hydrants. But unfortunately, none of this is in working condition," said Dhanunjaya Reddy.
The mishap comes less than two months after a major fire broke out at the Deccan Mall in Secunderabad, which claimed three lives and brought down the six-storey building.
After the Deccan Mall fire in January, the Telangana government had launched an inspection of buildings in Hyderabad, overseen by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC).
"Several teams were formed with members from the fire department, electrical department, revenue department etc," said Dhanunjaya Reddy. The Swapnalok Complex was one of the buildings inspected – merely 20 days before the mishap.
"When the complex was inspected, it was found that the cellars were not cleaned, waste was dumped here and there, and the fire safety equipment was not in working condition," he said. "It was also noticed that the electrical ducts were covered with wooden doors instead of fire doors."
Speaking to The Quint, GHMC Deputy Commissioner (Begumpet Circle) Mukund Reddy, who is part of an inspection team, said:
"Swapnalok Complex is not run by one single owner. There are several owners, so it has an owners' association. After the inspection, we gave them a list of instructions, which included maintaining firefighting systems and conducting an electrical audit to ascertain whether its wires have enough capacity."
"We gave them one month's time to respond, but unfortunately, the fire broke out within that duration," he said.
Speaking to the media a day after the fire, Fire Services Department Director General Nagi Reddy said nearly 2,000 buildings and establishments were inspected in Hyderabad recently.
"Individual owners and occupiers of the building should also take some responsibility in managing the equipment – not only the fire department, GHMC, or other government agencies," he had said.
Incidentally, the building owners were prosecuted in 2013 for the violation of fire prevention and fire safety measures after a minor fire broke out in 2011. "It was only after that incident that all the fire equipment was put in place at Swapnalok Complex," Nagi Reddy had said.
The building has currently been sealed and experts would soon survey the complex to see if it is structurally sound.