The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flaws foil underfoot fire-fight

The ladders were in place, the hosepipes ready. But the fire-fighters could put neither to any use. As the blaze consumed the Satyanarayan Park AC Market under the ground below their feet, the firemen fretted helplessly — they had never fought a wholly underground fire before and didn’t have a combat clue.

Worse, the “sophisticated” fire-fighting system that had been installed at the market, customised to fight an underground fire, failed at the crucial moment. All shops had been fitted with smoke detectors that would activate sprinklers connected to a main water reservoir above the market. But on Tuesday morning, the sprinkler system flopped.

To their horror, the shop-owners found that the motor, the couplings and the pipes to the reservoir were disconnected. Even after the ground-level system was pieced together, the sprinklers below refused to sputter into action. The reason: a total lack of maintenance.

In the end, it was left to the fire-fighters to find a way to wage a water war on the flames and fumes far below. “We are just not equipped to fight a blaze of this nature,” admitted director-general of fire services Balkar Singh. “We have neither the requisite machines, nor the expertise to handle such a situation. We have had to run from pillar to post for basic equipment.”

As the fire raged underground and there seemed no way ‘in’, desperate measures were devised to meet a desperate situation. Firemen, along with some civic officials, decided to drill four holes through the park and into the roof of the market. The idea was to let the smoke out and to allow firemen to flood the market and douse the flames without reaching the root cause of the catastrophe.

The fire department had no drills, at least not of the kind that would allow them to break through the concrete. So, Singh sent an SOS to construction firm Larsen and Toubro to “lend” them a power drill. It was only with this drill that late in the evening, the first hole was made and the first major step taken towards fighting the fire.

“Firemen are used to breaking walls and windows to get to a fire in a building, not to break into a construction under a park,” Singh said. “This proved to be the biggest handicap in fighting this fire and many hours were wasted.”

As firemen waited for the drill to arrive, they made a few attempts to reach the basement market through the three entrances, once the shutters were removed. But the operations were all quickly aborted. “Thick, dark smoke that was boiling hot billowed from the basements and the firemen beat a hasty retreat,” said director of fire services Baren Sen. “They were choking in the smoke,” he added.

Had the firemen been equipped with gas masks connected to oxygen cylinders, they would have got further than they did. But seven hours after the fire broke out, all that the fire department could muster were three oxygen cylinder-fitted gas masks. Singh also lamented the lack of blaze-battle basics: “Forget fire-safety suits, we didn’t even have heat-resistant vests or night vision torches.”

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