Kolkata: While a devastating fire in a multi-storey market complex in Sealdah here claimed at least 20 lives on Wednesday, political parties pointed fingers at rivals, engaging in the blame game.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hinted at sabotage as the cause of the fire, even as two of her own party leaders were critical of her regime, accusing it of inaction.
Party MLA from Chowringhee Sikha Mitra claimed that she had earlier warned of an impending fire tragedy in the area, but no one paid her any heed.
"I had written a letter to the chief whip of the party as well as city mayor (Sovon Chatterjee), stating that the area is so congested that in case of a fire, fire tenders would not be able to access the area," Mitra said.
"I had warned that a tragedy could happen any day, but there was no response. People time and again came to me with their grievances, seeking proper fire fighting arrangements in the market, but the administration did not pay heed," the distraught MLA said.
Banerjee, who Wednesday visited the area and blamed the people for the lack of fire fighting infrastructure, said sabotage could not be ruled out.
"Why has this incident happened? There are so many inflammable objects there (in the market) that if anybody intentionally lit a small fire, it could turn into a major fire. There could be (a) conspiracy, sabotage. The probe will look into all aspects," Banerjee said, as she ordered a probe.
Rebel Trinamool MP Kabir Suman said that in spite of repeated fire tragedies in the city, the government was still to learn its lessons.
"How many tragedies do we need, before the administration wakes up? There are many areas in the city which are virtual tinder boxes, waiting for a tragedy to happen," Suman told media persons.
Fire Services Minister Javed Khan who personally supervised fire-fighting operations Wednesday morning claimed that the market was illegally constructed during the erstwhile Left Front regime. He said action would be taken against those found guilty of erecting buildings without providing for fire safety measures.
Reacting to Khan's comment, Leader of Opposition in the West Bengal assembly Surjya Kanta Mishra said the priority at this time should be rescue operations, not the blame game.
"This is not the time to play the blame game. Immediate focus should be on rescuing people and initiating a probe as to why the tragedy happened," Mishra said.
If union minister Deepa Dasmunsi from the Congress demanded a judicial probe into the incident, party leader and MP Abdul Mannan said compensation of Rs.2 lakh announced by Banerjee to the kin of those killed in the fire was just not enough. Mannan said the compensation amount ought to be enhanced.
'An illegal and unauthorized market'
West Bengal Disaster Management minister Javed Ahmed Khan told reporters that 20 persons were killed in the blaze and six injured, with the condition of two critical.
The blaze, which started before 4 a.m., was likely caused by a short circuit, said West Bengal fire minister Javed Khan. The fire was under control by mid-morning, he said, but toxic gases being released by the blaze were hampering rescue efforts.
A police official said the police were looking for the owner of the building, which was filled with dozens of small shops selling various plastic products.
Another 10 people were hospitalized in critical condition and the death toll was expected to rise, Khan said.
He called the scene of the fire "an illegal, unauthorized market."
However, local residents said the market had been operating in the building for nearly 40 years. They said there was only one entrance to the building, which made rescue efforts difficult.
The building housed several warehouses on its upper floors where chemicals, paper and plastics were stored.
Police said the victims were porters working in the market who also slept there at night. Eighteen of the dead were men.
Mamata visited the site soon after the blaze was brought under control and ordered the building's owners to install fire safety equipment within two months.
Banerjee said the previous government that ruled the state for more than three decades had allowed the building to operate without any permits or safety measures.
She said she has ordered police, firefighters and the city administration to file a report on the cause of the blaze and take steps to prevent the recurrence of such fires.
In December 2011, at least 93 people died in a fire in a hospital in Kolkata. Soon after that, Banerjee promised that her government would crack down on lax safety procedures in public buildings.
Safety regulations are routinely ignored in India, where fire escapes and evacuation drills are rare. Even if fire extinguishers are present, they are almost never serviced.
Screams of fire victims woke up locals
Screams of people on fire broke the silence of the night in the congested Surya Sen Market complex in the city where a fire left labourers and shopkeepers dead.
Locals said they were alerted to the fire by shouts of the victims sleeping inside the complex.
"At around 3.45 AM when I came out of my house after hearing those screams, I saw flames coming out of window panes of the building with people shouting from the windows," Ranjit Hazra, a resident of the area, said.
Shopkeepers and locals said that lack of adequate fire-fighting mechanism and exit routes were responsible for the 19 deaths in the fire.
Suresh Agarwal, whose grocery shop in the market was reduced to cinders, said, "The market complex does not have any proper fire-fighting mechanism. The entire market has only one proper entry and exit route."
Another shop owner Dipak said the entire staircase of the market complex was blocked by goods belonging to shops.
State fire services minister Javed Khan said most of the people killed were either labourers working in the market complex or shop-owners who slept in their shops in the night.
Khan's views were endorsed by the governing body members of the market complex.
"Those who have died are mostly labourers, but a few of them were also shop owners. There was only one proper exit. There is an emergency exit but it has not been used for the last 10-15 years," Sushanta Ghosh, vice-chairman of the market, said.
"Actually most of the labourers who work in these shops are migrant labourers who sleep in the market during the night," Ghosh said.
According to Khan, about 200 shops situated in the ground and the first floor were gutted.
The five-storeyed building mainly housed shops and offices.
Ghosh said the fire first spotted on the ground floor worked its way up through the floors.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has ordered an inquiry into the incident.
Kolkata yet to learn from past fire tragedies
In a grim reminder of the AMRI Hospital and Stephen Court fire tragedies, Kolkata Wednesday woke up to a similar incident that left behind a trail of death and devastation at a marketplace.
Much like the AMRI disaster of December 2011, most victims were trapped inside the building and suffocated to death.
The steady stream of soot-smeared bodies being taken out of the market complex in Sealdah bore an eerie resemblance to the hospital fire incident where too a pre-dawn blaze choked to death critically-ill patients -- many of them in their sleep. Ninety-four people had died in the incident.
According to witnesses, Wednesday's blaze began around 3 a.m. in the mezzanine floor and leapt up to the first and second floors where most of the victims were sleeping.
In another similarity to the AMRI tragedy, highly combustible and inflammable material were stored in the building, facilitating the quick spreading of the fire.
"After the AMRI incident, the government requested all buildings to follow safety norms. No one follows the norms," Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said.
She advised people not to sleep in warehouses and dingy shops and said the government was ready to provide shelters to them, if needed.
"Most of the victims used to sleep inside the shops and godowns (warehouses). With the fire spreading all around and exits locked, they were trapped and suffocated to death," said a witness.
Doctors at N.R.S. Medical College and Hospital where the victims were taken to said most died due to suffocation.
"Some of them were charred to death, but a majority of them died due to suffocation," said a doctor.
With forensic experts and fire officials still inspecting the area and prohibiting people to access it, shopkeepers and warehouse owners are yet to ascertain their losses.
"I stocked medicines worth over Rs.25 lakh. All that is gone now. I'm completely ruined. My family has no other way but to beg now," said a medicine shop owner.
Similar is the story of around 50 families who lost their livelihood in the blaze which took more than nine hours to be put out.
Some said fire tenders reached the spot half an hour late after the fire was out of control.
The beeline of political leaders at the site also compounded the misery of the people as they were prevented by police to access their destroyed shops.
With the market located in a congested area and roads leading to it being dingy and narrow, the fire fighters had problem accessing the building as precious time flew by.
"Some fire tenders were old and leaking. People in the area were also prevented from going inside the building. Had we been allowed inside we could have saved many people," said a witness.
Fire Services Minister Javed Khan admitted that the lack of fire exits coupled with locked doors in the ill-fated building hampered rescue work.
It also proved that the city was yet to learn from past tragedies.
In the fire at the iconic Stephen Court building in Park Street in March 2010, 43 people had died with most of them getting trapped due to locked doors and lack of fire exits.