New Delhi: Last Friday started out slow for 56-year-old crane operator Dayanand Tiwari. He arrived at his boss’s small shop near Metro Pillar No. 491 in West Delhi, waited out in the sun with the other drivers, and then headed out when he was assigned a job. But, then, as he and his cousin and co-passenger Anil Tiwari were driving back in the late afternoon, they saw plumes of black smoke across the road in Mundka, West Delhi.
With no fire tenders in sight, the two men made a split-second decision: they’d have to be the first responders on the scene. Together, they used their crane to break past the road dividers to reach the burning four-storey building, and saved the lives of at least 50 people— mostly women assembly workers at a manufacturing unit — who were trapped inside.
“We are still sad that we could not save everyone. All the people trapped were women. The whole world respects women, they are considered goddesses, we decided that we will save them come what may,” Dayanand Tiwari told ThePrint, his eyes moist. “Even if we die, we will not give up.”
He and Anil, who are originally from Uttar Pradesh, are heroes now, but they are also haunted: 27 people are known to have died in the blaze, and another 29 are still missing. Even as the two men brought dozens of workers from the cramped building out to safety, they saw others screaming and dying, some jumping down AC shafts in desperation.
Even so, had it not been for the cousins’ quick thinking and herculean efforts, a lot more lives could have been lost in the blaze, which reportedly took 120 firefighters and 30 fire tenders six hours to douse when they finally arrived.
Where fire officials in Delhi have claimed that they were delayed by traffic and the congested location, Dayanand and Anil described to ThePrint how they smashed through every obstacle to reach the site.
‘Used crane to break glass, rescued 5-6 women at a time’
When Dayanand and Anil Tiwari decided to embark on their rescue operation, they knew that speed and strategy were equally important.
The first task was to reach the building, which was located across the road from them in a congested area. To get there, Dayanand used the crane to break the road divider and then rammed the heavy beam of the vehicle into the thick glass of the building’s second floor — from where most of the bodies were eventually recovered — allowing the smoke to release.
While Dayanand had the machine controls, Anil— who is also a crane operator — was his eyes and ears. With swift actions and sharp commands, he directed Dayanand to move right and left, up and down.
Wasting no time after breaking the thick glass, Anil urged the desperate women screaming inside the building to sit on the beam of the crane. Five or six got on at a time and were then brought down to safety.
“We did this for 1.5 hours till the flames were so big that we could not see anything. We felt that we have to save as many lives as possible. We don’t have to leave anyone. We used all our energy in saving as many people as we could,” Dayanand said.
‘They put their lives in danger too’
Battling the heat, flames, and dealing with dangerously low electric wires without any proper equipment put the men’s lives in danger too, and they had several close calls.
“A wire of 11,000 volts was right in front of the building. We had to move the crane very carefully. Had we gone close to the wire, the electric current would have led to another tragedy, also putting at risk people on the ground who had gathered to help. The wire could have broken and fallen on them,” Anil said.
At one point, a big piece of glass broke due to the heat and fell exactly at the spot where Anil was standing. It was just by luck that he had stepped aside at that moment.
Meanwhile, the Tiwaris’ employer Suresh Dhanda, the owner of a company called New Komal Crane Service, arrived at the scene to lend moral support.
“They put their lives in danger and did this work. We had told them that they shouldn’t worry about the machine getting damaged but to just save as many lives as they could. If a machine breaks, then we can get a new one. But life can’t be replaced,” Dhanda said.
When the Tiwaris could no longer carry on, they quietly withdrew and moved the crane back to its final stop. But, images of the horrors they witnessed still flash in front of their eyes. “We saw people burning. What should I tell you?” Anil said, and then abruptly fell silent.
Taking time off, though, was not an option. A day after their stunning act of bravery, Dayanand and Anil were back at the shop with chipped paint, near Pillar No. 491.
Outside the burnt Mundka building, the shattered glass and burnt inventory are cordoned off by yellow tape. The cement blocks of the footpath the crane operators broke to cross over to the other side are still lying on the road. Dayanand and Anil haven’t been back: they’ve already seen too much.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)