Surat: At least 20 students were killed and several injured after a major fire broke out at a coaching centre in Sarthana area of Surat on Friday. Disturbing visuals showed some students jumping off the multi-storey building in an attempt to escape the inferno.
The students were attending tuition classes when the fire broke out at the Takshila building. Officials said at least 10 students on the third and fourth floors jumped to the ground to save themselves from the fire and smoke.
"The fire started near the staircase, so they could not get down," Joint Commissioner of Police Harikrishna Patel said, adding that all the dead were aged below 20 years.
Nineteen fire tenders and two hydraulic platforms were pressed into service to douse the fire and rescue those stuck inside the building, said an official of Surat fire control room. The fire was doused within an hour. No safety equipment was reportedly installed in the building, added the official.
Amid chaos on the top floor, particularly in the room where children were confined, a class 10 girl student showed presence of mind and calmly followed her teacher to safety, while helping another student.
Urmi Harsukhbhai Vekari, one of the survivors, said, "I had joined this drawing class just three days ago. There were 20-30 boys and girls learning drawing from Bhargav Sir. Suddenly, there was a lot of smoke in the room... initially we thought that somebody had burnt papers. Thereafter we came to know that fire had erupted and everybody panicked and they started jumping off," Urmi said.
Urmi said she and another girl kept their calm and didn't panic. “But we saw our sir (teacher) safely lowering down to the railing underneath the window. Putting all my trust in him, I, too, lowered myself and he helped me get on the little space underneath and also helped the other girl. We reached the ground safely on the fire brigade's ladder which came up to us. Bhargav Sir was the last to come down the ladder," she said.
According to Urmi, the classes are run at the fine arts institute, where aspiring architects and fine arts students undergo coaching for competitive exams like NATA.
While Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said at least 19 students died in the fire, his deputy Nitin Patel put the figure at 20.
"As per the information received, 20 students have died in the fire. Many others were injured and shifted to a hospital," Patel said.
Expressing anguish, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he has directed the state government and local authorities to provide all possible assistance to those affected.
Extremely anguished by the fire tragedy in Surat. My thoughts are with bereaved families. May the injured recover quickly. Have asked the Gujarat Government and local authorities to provide all possible assistance to those affected.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 24, 2019
Rupani said the injured are being treated in various hospitals near the incident site. Expressing anguish, he announced a compensation of Rs 4 lakh for the kin of the deceased. The injured children will be given quick and proper treatment, he added.
Rupani, who ordered an investigation into the incident by Mukesh Puri, principal secretary in the urban development department, later rushed to Surat. He also ordered a fire safety audit of schools, colleges and coaching centres across the state, and visited the injured children in hospitals.
"We have ordered a detailed inquiry into the incident. We will not spare those found guilty," said Patel. Coaching classes at the centre were run in a shade built on the top floor of the building, he said, adding they “will check if the construction was illegal”.
The audit will find out if educational establishments in the state have proper equipment and facilities to deal with fire incidents. He said the fire audit would also cover hospitals, malls and other commercial buildings of major cities and towns in the state.
'No escape route for children'
Local people helped with the operation to save stranded students and other occupants of the building that houses coaching classes and other establishments. The coaching centre was being run on the covered roof-top, which effectively became the fourth storey, and there was a wooden staircase to reach there, claimed eyewitnesses, adding there were around 50 students in the complex when the fire started.
Authorities of Surat Municipal Corporation were investigating if the building had taken the statutory permission, including those related to fire safety. The state government has also brought in forensic experts to ascertain the exact cause of the fire.
According to a fire official, flames started from the ground floor and reached the top floor, forcing some students to take shelter on the terrace which was covered.
"A lot of smoke accumulated on the top floor where there were AC compressors and tyres, which also caught fire. There was no escape route available for the students who got trapped on the top floors,” said a fire official.
Union health minister JP Nadda spoke to Rupani and assured assistance. A team of doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi was formed and put on alert to provide help.
Several leaders, including BJP chief Amit Shah, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Independent MLA Jignesh Mevani, Congress leaders Randeep Singh Surjewala, Ashok Gehlot and Hardik Patel, and National Conference’s Omar Abdullah, condoled the demise of the students.
Meanwhile, the authorities have ordered all the coaching centres across the state to be closed until further orders. All coaching classes, summer camps and activities held at premises housing children will be closed until further notice and until they acquire fire compliance certificates, the Ahmedabad Police said in a tweet.
In February, at least 17 people were killed in a massive fire at a hotel in New Delhi's Karol Bargh area. A subsequent investigation found that the hotel was running without the requisite fire safety permissions.
(With inputs from agencies)