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Blaze below, baffle above

Calcutta, April 22: Calcutta’s first underground fire broke out today in Satyanarayan Park market, but the city that takes pride in the country’s first subterrestrial railway was at a loss on how to tackle the blaze.

Initial assessments indicated that all the 300-odd shops in the two-tier underground shopping complex, inaugurated by Jyoti Basu in 1988 in central Calcutta, might have been destroyed.

At the end of the day, an unprepared and ill-equipped fire-fighting force was as far from the source of the fire as it was early in the morning when the fire was detected.

“I fear that all shops on both basements have been devastated,” said fire services director Baren Sen.

Barely able to drill three holes on the surface of the park to pump water into the mart, officials said they hoped that the cooler temperatures would allow firemen to get close to the origin of the fire on Wednesday.

The fire started around 4 am from the northeastern corner of the lower basement where an air-conditioning plant was in place, director-general of fire services Balkar Singh said. A preliminary inquiry revealed that the air-conditioning ducts helped the fire spread elsewhere, he added.

But it was the firemen’s inability to approach the origin of the blaze — because of the 400-degree centigrade temperature that turned water to steam and the dense smoke that reduced visibility to a few feet — that rankled traders who saw goods worth around Rs 100 crore go up in smoke.

As the confusion — over how to tackle the fire — dragged on till evening, devastated traders gathered themselves for a demonstration around 4 pm, 12 hours after the fire was spotted by night-watchman Bahadur Thapa.

“I was patrolling the western end of the market when I noticed smoke and sparks coming out from the air-conditioning plant on the lower basement. The fire soon spread to an adjoining shop, Hemant, and I rushed out to make calls,” Thapa said.

Frightened shopowners began converging on the site around 5 am. The fire brigade was informed at 5.15 am, Sen said.

The confusion over how to tackle the fire was evident from the start. Firemen, aided by residents, initially tried to get in through the three entrances on Kalakar Street, Cotton Street and Burtolla Street. All three, however, were locked and precious time was spent on locating the keys before it was decided to break in through one of the entrances.

The scene inside was worse, officials said. Firemen could not get 10 yards into the market because of the “intense heat and thick smoke”. They then tried to pump water into the tunnels leading to the two tiers but failed.

The first three hours were spent on locating the origin of the fire and then trying to find out how best to push in water. As firemen struggled, tempers rose. “They are an outdated force,” shopowner Rajesh Goel shouted. Chamber of Textile Trade and Industry president Murari Lal Khaitan agreed: “Most of the gadgets they brought here were of no use.”

The market had a water-sprinkling system, with pipes connected to all shops, but Singh said none of them worked. This, however, was discounted by the market’s promoter, Pawan Kajaria.

The firemen then slipped on gas masks but they were not meant to ward off heat. Besides, the masks were not fitted to oxygen cylinders, rendering them useless. It was then that officials thought of taking private help and Larsen & Toubro and Senbo were called in to drill holes to pump in water.

The machines arrived around noon. By 8 pm, three holes — drilled by a fire brigade-Metro Rail team — were in place. Another hole was drilled near the main entrance. “We are geared up to fight all night,” Sen said.

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