Kolkata's Park Street fire: Death toll rises to 24


Image courtesy: twitter.com/abhic

Kolkata:  Kolkata's police commissioner Gautam Chakraborty said on Wednesday that the death toll in in the massive fire at Stephen Court was high because the gate to the roof was locked. Several charred bodies were found near this door, indicating that people desperately tried to escape but couldn't.

He also added that the police and fire brigade personnel had faced difficulties in conducting rescue operations inside Stephen Court as they were not provided the building plan.

"The fifth and sixth floors of the building were constructed illegally. These were later regularised," he told reporters, adding that the promoter who built the two floors was absconding after Tuesday's blaze.

"We had asked the building association president for a plan of the building and a list of tenants, but these were not provided to us. If we had the list, we could have saved some more people," he said.

An FIR will also be filed by fire department against the owner of the building.

The fire at the 150-year-old building home to two of the city's best known restaurants - the iconic Flury's and Peter Cat - killed 24 people on Tuesday and left about 18 injured, eight of whom are critical. Firemen recovered 17 bodies overnight as they went from door to door on the 5th, 6th and 7th floor of the building. Of the 12 bodies identified so far, one is that of a child. At least five people had jumped to their death as the fire raged.

The fire began at 2.15 pm on Tuesday. It was brought under control at about 10.30 pm. Initial findings suggest a short circuit or cylinder burst may have caused it. The fire, that may have started in a lift between the 5th and 6th floors soon spread upwards and sideways, forcing people out of windows onto narrow parapets and ledges as they waited to be rescued.

Reports said at least one woman missed her step and fell five floors below. "We saw a lady jumping off, but she missed the AC she was aiming for and crashed down," an eyewitness Raja Guha, said.

For over four hours, over 100 firemen battled the Park Street inferno with rescue operations hampered by lack of equipment, massive crowds and even traffic.

The first four fire engines arrived at the spot soon after the fire started from the nearby Free School Street fire station. But they could do little as they did not have the equipment needed to tackle the fire.

Meanwhile, panicky people trapped in the building tried to escape by climbing down rickety ladders or even a rope. Hydraulic ladders were needed to transport fire personnel to the higher floors where the fire raged, but these took more than an hour to get to the site as the fire engines equipped with the ladders were stored in not-so-close Behala.

The police said some of the delays were unavoidable. "The hydraulic ladders which were critical to the rescue were stored in Behala. It takes time through Kolkata's traffic to reach from Behala to Park Street," said Joint Commissioner of Police Javed Shamim.

West Bengal Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, Pratim Chatterjee too pointed out that in Kolkata traffic, "It takes one hour to cover a 15 km journey, that is why the delay took place in the fire tenders reaching there."

Even as the fire raged, the blame game had begun. Trinamool leader and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjie, the first politician to reach the scene of the fire, wanted answers. "Where is the disaster management? There is none," she said.

There have been fires in Kolkata before, this being the third major one in less than two years, but there have not been any fatalities before this. As the 150-year-old building built by Kolkata's Armenian community went up in flames, it left behind many questions. Were fire safety norms callously ignored? Could precious lives have been saved?

Stephen Court fire: Timeline

1.50pm-2.05pm: Fire starts at Stephen Court

2.15pm: Fire department control room gets a call about the fire

2.25pm: Ten engines are required on the spot but only two arrive from the fire services headquarters in Free School Street

2.30pm: Ten more fire engines are requisitioned but the tenders are unable to reach Stephen Court on time because of lack of drivers

2.45pm: The flames spread rapidly to other parts of the building. Another 10 engines are demanded. Tenders from Barrackpore, Salt Lake Sector V and Behala start for Park Street

2.50pm: Local people start a demonstration demanding taller ladders to reach up to the victims trapped on the upper floors

3.05pm: A woman clad in salwar kameez stands on the iron bracket of an AC fourth floor of the building's gate No. 1 after being rescued by a man from one of the fire-engulfed rooms

3.30pm: Two Bronto skylifts reach the spot, one from Sector V and another from Behala. Police commandos enter the building

3.45pm: Parts of the building crumble and fall off. A burning AC machine crashes down

3.50pm: The commandos save 98-year-old Ganeshri Devi from the fourth floor

4:00pm: Explosions heard from within the building, probably gas cylinders bursting

5:00pm: Thirty-nine engines are at work. One tender returns after developing a snag

5.20pm: Fire department says blaze under control

6:00pm: One man dies of burn injuries, five have earlier jumped to their deaths. Death count stands at 6

11.50pm: Rapid Action Force deployed      

1.00am: Charred bodies being brought out of the building. Death count stands at 16, says fire department

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