“I heard an explosion and quickly got out of bed. My first reaction was that a bomb has gone off. Then I saw the smoke and the leaping flames, and realised what had happened. The gas cylinders were bursting one after the other. I ran out of my apartment, down the staircase through the blinding mix of smoke and flames, into the road. I did not think I would live to see another day.”
For Sunil Agarwal, 35, life will never be the same again. All that remains of his tiny apartment of 30 years, on the first floor of the sprawling Ludhiana Hosiery Building in Burrabazar, are charred memories.
Since Agarwal lived alone, once he was out of the building himself, he lost no time in helping his neighbours. He recollects spending the next few hours making trips back and forth through familiar corridors, carrying out screaming residents from different floors.
Initially, about 70-odd people had reached the exit that opens into Cotton Street but could not open the door as it was jammed. “Our hopes sank, but soon the door was broken and we managed to escape,” added Sunil. He and his friends then rushed to the nearby Babulal Lane, where others were crying out for help.
“The lights had gone out as the electric wires had melted in the heat,” recalled Sunil.
Another picture of courage was Bipin Ganatra, in his early 40s. A resident of Raja Dinendra Nath Street, Bipin was watching television late and came to know of the fire soon after it started. By 4.45 am, he was inside one of the ravaged buildings, trying to douse the blaze, a leaky hosepipe in hand.
Atul Agarwal, 50, a tenant of the Ludhiana building, has lost all his belongings. He is now left with just a dhoti and a kurta on his person, that too borrowed from a neighbour. Yet he was busy, along with members of a voluntary organisation, distributing snacks among other victims.
Sitaram Rathi, disabled and all of 65 years old, also took an active part in the action. Seeing that the leaking hose pipes were holding up the rescue operation, he arranged for water to be supplied from nearby buildings.
Yogesh Sharma, in his sixties, is one of the lucky few whose relatives have rallied behind him in his moment of crisis. He has no clue where he will stay now. “ If we hadn’t been alerted, we would all have died in our sleep,” he said.
Biswanath Trivedi, a local shop-owner, spent all day assisting the medical team and the fire fighters salvage goods and carry the injured. “I have arranged accommodation for many families at my place. After all, where will they go now'” Trivedi said.