A devastating fire at the Eastern Railway headquarters in Kolkata on Monday, which claimed nine lives, raised many questions regarding rescue operations. The fire broke out on the 13th floor of the 14-storied building on Strand Road at 6.10 pm and the situation was brought under control on Tuesday morning with the help of 25 fire engines.
As the rescue team arrived, instead of the 11th floor, the elevators ‘accidentally’ went up to the 13th floor where the raging fire was engulfing the Eastern Railway’s New Koilaghat Building. Out of four, the moment two elevators carrying nine officials opened, the leaping fire sucked away whatever oxygen the elevator was carrying as a chamber. Minutes later all of them asphyxiated. Later their charred body recovered.
The distance between the elevators and the place of devastating fire was hardly five to six meters and one can imagine the survival chances of human beings when the temperature went nearly up to 1500-1700 degree Fahrenheit. Signs of struggle to survive, scratches and dent due to banging inside the elevators sent shivers down the spine of the forensic team who went there to examine the site.
Now the question arises why the elevators were used when there is a common belief that using lifts during fire is a strict no? Why did the power of the multi-storied building not disconnect immediately after the fire broke out?
There are multiple arguments, allegations, counter allegations and statements pouring in from the police, fire, railways and the state administration. One of the fire department officials overseeing the crisis, Diptanu Basu said, “Using elevators for common people/civilians are prohibited during such a mishap but fire officials can use elevators during such crises in multi-storied buildings. We trained to handle such situations. Everything was going well but it is still not known why the elevators didn’t stop at the 11th floor and went straight to the 13th floor.”
He said, “The fire broke out around 6.10 pm and we immediately rushed to the spot. My colleagues, Girish Dey, Sourav Bej, Aniruddha Jana and Biman Purkayat, decided to use the elevators and to guide them an Assistant Sub-Inspector Amit Bhaval of Hare Street police station, Deputy Chief Commercial Manager of Railways Partha Sarathi Mondal, railway technician Sudip Das and RPF official Sanjay Sahni accompanied them.”
He further said, “As per plan, they were supposed to get down at the 11th floor but how they reached the 13th floor is not yet known. Maybe the lift stopped functioning normally due to the fire. Such details will come out during the forensic report.”
When asked why the power of the multi-storied building was not disconnected, he said, “The mishap was big and it’s not possible to walk upstairs to 13th floor to douse the fire. People may say many things but let’s accept the ground reality. To run the elevators, the electricity supply was not disconnected.”
Sourav Bej’s (one of the victims) father Giriprasad Bej, said, “My son’s body was beyond recognition. It was black and bones came out. I can imagine the pain he went through inside the trapped elevators.”
When contacted by West Bengal Fire Minister Sujit Bose, he said, “Those who died were going up through the elevators for search and rescue operations. Due to unbearable heat on the 13th floor, all of them died of asphyxiation and got charred (the moment sliding doors of the elevator opened). All bodies were recovered and handed over to their respective family members after post mortem examination.”
While expressing condolences, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tweeted, “PM has approved an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from PMNRF for the next of kin of those who have lost their lives due to the tragic fire in Kolkata. Rs 50,000 would be given to those seriously injured”.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who visited the spot at night, announced Rs 10-lakh compensation for the next of kin of the deceased and alleged non co-operation from the Indian Railways.
She said, “It is a Railways office. I don’t have words to express my grief. We lost nine persons including fire officials, RPF and police. All of them got trapped in the elevators and died. Sorry to say, but no one from the Railways came here during the fire incident. I have enquired and got to know no one came. The Railways are accountable for the crisis because we wanted a building plan for quick rescue operation but did not receive cooperation from them.”
Mamata also advised people not to use elevators during such cases. “We should not use elevators during fire incidents. We need to be careful here,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Kolkata police registered a case under section 304 A of IPC added with section 11J and 11 L of WBFS Act, 1950.
Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal set up a high-level committee to ascertain the cause of fire.
He later tweeted, “I salute the bravery of 3 Railway personnel, including RPF Constable Sanjay Sahni, Dy Chief Comm. Mgr. Partha Sarathi Mondal & Sr Technician Sudip Das, along with 5 firefighters & a police ASI, who laid down their lives to stop fire at Eastern Railways Strand road office, Kolkata.”
The building houses railway ticketing offices and preliminary inquiry revealed that the fire broke out from the server room located on the 13th floor.
Preliminary inquiry revealed that the building has firefighting equipment but not sufficient as per size and elevation of the building. “There were fire extinguishers and firefighting water lines but it was not adequate. Also there was not enough water in the reservoir,” a senior fire official present on the spot said.
Minister Sujit Bose has already instructed the police and the forensic team to probe whether the firefighting system was adequate there in the building or not. He said, “I personally went up to the 13th floor and I have not seen anything which will justify that the firefighting system was adequate there. But it is too early to comment and let the inquiry report come.”
On Mamata’s allegation against the non-cooperation from the Indian Railways, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted, “All possible assistance has been provided by the Railways to the State Government during this unfortunate fire accident. A high-level inquiry consisting of four principal heads of Railway departments has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the fire.”
Meanwhile, the online railway ticket booking for trains under Kolkata PRS which has been affected due to fire incident has been resumed.