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One bank gutted, another escapes

Calcutta, Feb. 15: A fire tonight devastated the foreign exchange division of Punjab National Bank, located on the first floor of PNB House on Brabourne Road, at Dalhousie Square.

The fire was detected by occupants of the five-storeyed commercial building around 8.40 pm and 22 fire tenders were rushed to the spot.

However, an ABN AMRO Bank branch on the ground floor was saved as the flames were confined to the first floor.

Firefighters were struggling to deal with the thick smoke spewing out of the affected area while simultaneously ensuring that the fire did not spread.

'Our foreign exchange department has been gutted, all transaction records have been destroyed,' said B.P. Choudhury, the general manager (eastern zone) of PNB. 'But the total loss and damage can only be assessed tomorrow.'

Pratim Chatterjee, the fire services minister, said: 'Our experience with fires of this scale has showed negligence on the part of the occupants. It seems an electrical short-circuit may have caused the fire. A team of forensic experts will visit the spot tomorrow.'

The flames were eventually tamed by five browsers, equipped with automated ladders.

'The fire has been brought under control and we are trying to find out who is the owner of the building,' said Gyanwant Singh, deputy commissioner of police (central division). No one was injured in the incident, he added.

According to fire department officials, the blaze broke out on the first floor of PNB House, which falls under Hare Street police station.

Baren Sen, the director of fire services, said: 'One of the two banks lodged in the building is safe. We are examining the extent of damage to the other bank.'

The blaze started from the left corner of the first floor and quickly spread to the other rooms. The whole floor is occupied by Punjab National Bank's foreign exchange department with a canteen on the right side.

'A passer-by approached me and told me about the fire, I could not see it myself because I was inside,' said Jhantu Dey, a security guard posted at PNB House.

When the fire brigade officials reached the spot, they were forced to break the windowpanes to gain entry into the building. Braving heat and thick smoke, the fire fighters rescued at least 20 people, including private security personnel, via a staircase.

Unable to access the concrete staircase, which was filled with smoke, the fire fighters directed water jets at the windows of the affected floor. As the glass panes shattered, people who had assembled outside the building scrambled for cover.

'All the doors were locked, and visibility was reduced to almost nil because of the thick smoke. We could not enter the second floor of the building, so we had to break the doors and glass windows,' a fire fighter said.

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