For the first time in recent memory, Calcutta’s central business district witnessed a blaze during daytime — rather than the now-customary night fires — that gutted large portions of a landmark building on Strand Road.
Many among the 50-odd offices on two floors of the 83-year-old Mohta House were severely damaged on Monday morning, but no life was lost in the fire that raged for nearly three hours from 10.30 am, before being controlled by 20 fire tenders. A portion of the first floor later caved in.
“Unfortunately, none of the offices in the building had fire-fighting equipment installed,” said fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee. “And certain illegal things were taking place in the five-storeyed building,” he added, without specifying any wrongdoing.
Witnesses said 16 residents were trapped on the top floor as smoke and fire billowed from the first and second floors. While some scaled down the pipes, fire-brigade ladders rescued the rest. Firemen said five persons were injured, of whom three were taken to SSKM Hospital.
“I was on the phone when I suddenly noticed smoke spiralling up the elevator shaft,” recounted Vandana Mohta. “Then somebody shouted that the first floor of the building was on fire.” The panic-stricken Mohtas rushed to the terrace. “The smoke almost choked us,” said G.P. Mohta, Vandana’s husband. “We went to the first floor where the neighbours broke one of the windows and helped pull us out.” According to Mohta, as soon as residents realised that a fire had broken out, they switched off the power lines and alerted the fire brigade.
Residents and office employees later alleged that fire tenders arrived more than 40 minutes after they had been called in. Baren Sen, director, fire services, admitted they had been “slightly late” in reaching the spot after being held up by “terrible traffic’’. Sen said the likely cause of the blaze was a short-circuit, but it could only be confirmed once the forensic team completed its investigations on Tuesday.
According to the director of fire services, the Mohta Charitable Trust that owns and manages the building will be asked to pick up the fire-fighting tabs. “We have decided to raise a bill with such commercial complexes for not taking adequate protection measures,’’ said Sen. The police have sealed off the shops and offices on the first and second floors.