A 45-year-old man was charred to death early on Tuesday at Indira Colony, in the Bantra area of Howrah, when he went back into his burning shanty to recover some belongings. He had got out of the shanty barely seconds earlier. Fifty shanties, on 4,000 sq ft, went up in flames after lightning struck around 5.30 am, firemen said.
The dead man was identified as Ajit Kayal, who lived in the shanties next to Tikiapara railway station. Six fire tenders battled for three hours to control the blaze, that caused panic in the area. Many people were injured in the melee that ensued as the shanties burned.
According to eyewitnesses, the sky was dark and a strong wind was blowing, when lightning struck. Most of the shanty-dwellers were asleep.
But firemen did not rule out the possibility of the blaze being caused by a spark from a lamp. The shanties are made of combustible materials, like plastic and bamboo. A strong police picket was posted to maintain order.
Around 5.35 am, some women who were working outside saw the lightning, accompanied by deafening thunder. They noticed a fire on the eastern side of the dwellings. Immediately, they raised an alarm. All the shanty-dwellers, including Kayal, rushed out. One of them, Damodar Saha, said the fire spread so rapidly that the shanties were reduced to ashes in a very short time.
“We tried to douse the flames with buckets of water but it was futile. The fire brigade was informed, but the men arrived late,” he said. Kayal suddenly ran back into his burning shanty, perhaps to salvage something valuable.
“But he was engulfed in flames so fast that he was trapped inside. He was brought out with the help of neighbours, but he was burnt beyond recognition. He was taken to a local hospital, where he died,” Saha said.
Firemen denied the charge that they had reached late. They claimed that locals had delayed their operation. Fire-fighters tried to control the blaze by sprinkling water, but in vain, for these were made of combustible materials. The source of water was far away. “The hovels could not be saved for there wasn’t an inch of space in between,” a fireman pointed out.
Officer-in-charge of Bantra police station N. Hossain Sarkar said the shanties were built on railway land a long time ago. “They had been asked several times to vacate but they did not bother,” Sarkar said.