The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Mart burns, Buddha squirms
Trinamul Congress MLA Satyanarayan Bajaj is driven out by distraught shopowners of Satyanarayan Park AC Market on Wednesday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

The Satyanarayan Park AC Market continued to burn through Wednesday as over 100 firemen failed to locate the source of the blaze 40 hours after it broke out. Thousands waited for the smokescreen to lift and the horror to end.

With complete lack of preparedness (read: equipment and expertise), in tackling an underground blaze rising like a sordid spectre above Satyanarayan Park, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was forced to admit fire-fighting “failure” at Writers’ Buildings.

“The fire brigade was not fully equipped to tackle something of this sort,” said Bhattacharjee, referring to the city’s first underground blaze. He added that two Central agencies — the Central Industrial Security Force and Coal India Limited — had been approached to help fight the fumes.

The candid admission at the state’s seat of power and the distant hope of deliverance, however, failed to bring any cheer to the site of the Burrabazar blaze. Environment minister Manab Mukherjee and fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee were among those who had to face the ire of traders lamenting the loss of goods worth around Rs 100 crore in the blaze, that broke out a little after 4 am on Tuesday.

“We could have controlled any fire above the ground within a few hours,” claimed the fire minister. “But temperatures touching 400-degree Celsius prevented our men from entering the underground market,” added Chatterjee, explaining why flooding was the sole fire-fighting method at Satyanarayan Park.

Even as the large police force struggled to curb the crowd, various agencies bickered over how to tackle an underground blaze. The army was called in to help after 24 hours of civilian flame-fighting proved futile. But even before they could get into the act, they were asked to go back.

Army officials initially suggested that explosives be used to blow a hole in the rooftop garden to boost the blaze battle. Firemen, however, insisted that the blast could prove fatal for the dilapidated buildings in the area.

“We are trying to control the fire with our own formula,” said Chatterjee. The fireman’s formula was to flood the entire two-tier market. Officials said five lakh cubic feet of water would be needed to fill up the basement mart, an area of one lakh sq ft. Civic officials said they would be able to supply 1.5 lakh gallons by midnight. Till then, the fire-fighting efforts would have to go slow.

Unlike other fire-ravaged buildings, Satyanarayan Park had all the amenities to tackle a blaze, fire services director Baren Sen said. But the facilities were not maintained, he added, referring to the water-sprinkler system, the fire and smoke alarms and the fuse meant to snap in case of a fire. Chamber of Textile Trade and Industry president M.L. Khaitan alleged that the “market authorities would collect a fee of Rs 32 per sq ft as maintenance charge from shopowners but did not utilise it”.

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