New Delhi: The congested lanes of the Anaj Mandi locality only served to increase the scale of the tragedy that occurred early Sunday morning, when at least 43 people were killed in a fire at a packaging factory in a residential area just off Delhi’s Rani Jhansi Road.
A case has been registered against the owner of the building, a man named Rehan, and his brothers Shaan and Imran, who also ran factories in the building, under Section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) of the Indian Penal Code.
All three had gone absconding, but Rehan was arrested in the evening by Delhi Police, along with his manager Furkan. Shaan and Imran have also been detained, according to police sources.
Initially, local residents attempted to douse the fire by themselves, but were hampered by the lack of lighting. To make matters worse, the staircase leading up to the source of the fire on the second floor was narrow.
When things got out of hand, they called in the Delhi Fire Service around 5.30 am. However, only one fire tender was able to reach the spot, while four others had to be parked two lanes away, with firemen lugging hoses to the engulfed building.
Speaking to the media, Chief Fire Officer Atul Garg said the building did not have fire clearance, and no fire safety equipment was found installed on the premises, except for a couple of extinguishers at the entrance.
Local resident Umar, who was one of the first to reach the spot to try and douse the fire, told ThePrint: “We saw pitch-black smoke coming out of the windows of the factory. The fire was caused by a short circuit on the second floor, which spread through mattresses and plastic bags that were present in ample amounts in the factory.
“We tried to douse the fire with one extinguisher, and then went to get the second, but by then, the fire had spread across the building and we had to get to safety.”
What’s more, residents said at least 50-60 labourers lived in the three-storey building, and used to lock the doors from the inside. This is why firemen had to rescue people from the roof.
Firemen eventually took 64 people out of the building, 53 of whom were rushed to the LNJP Hospital and 11 to Lady Hardinge Medical College. But 43 of them didn’t survive, while the rest are in critical condition.
Toxic fumes were the killer
Kishor Singh, medical superintendent at LNJP Hospital, told ThePrint that the primary cause of death was suffocation due to plastic and foam fumes, and said this was also why the injured people were still critical.
“Inhalation cases may become severe with passing time, as it causes swelling in lungs,” he said.
LNJP Hospital authorities said 30 of the people brought to them were dead on arrival.
Former Delhi Fire Service director G.C. Mishra added that while the fire itself was not a major one, the casualty count was unusually high because of the inhalation of poisonous gases by the victims.
“If you inhale the smoke from a one-foot-long plastic-coated wire burned inside a room for five minutes, it is enough to kill you,” Mishra told ThePrint.
He added that Delhi Fire Service Rules, 2010, and the National Building Code of India apply to new buildings, not to the structures in areas like Anaj Mandi, most of which were built between the 1920s and the 1960s. He said small fires were common in the locality, which hosts several illegal factories and adjoins other congested areas like Filmistan and Sadar Bazar.
Panic among relatives
At the LNJP Hospital, there was utter chaos through the day as relatives of the labourers killed in the blaze rushed to identify their kin among the dead and injured.
Most of the labourers hailed from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Praveen, a resident of Sitamarhi, said his brother Mukesh was working in a plastic handbag factory on one of the floors, and that there were at least three to four factories on every floor.
“I got a call from his fellow worker that he has in the building last night, but I don’t know where he has been taken to,” Praveen said.
Compensation for victims
Meanwhile, the central and Delhi governments have announced relief packages for the relatives of those killed or injured in the blaze.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the kin of those killed, and Rs 50,000 each for those seriously injured, the PMO said in a tweet. The amount will be paid from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.
The Delhi government has ordered a probe into the fire, and sought a detailed report within seven days. Revenue minister Kailash Gahlot has directed the district magistrate (central) to conduct the inquiry.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each for the families of the deceased, and Rs 1 lakh each to those injured. The expense of medical treatment of those injured will be borne by the Delhi government.