|The factory on Topsia Road that was gutted on Wednesday. (Below) Boys work in a nearby factory under similar conditions. Pictures by Bishwarup Dutta
Calcutta, Nov. 22: From behind the gate the young men — aflame — shouted for help. As the fire swallowed them, the hammers fell on the lock. But the gate wouldn’t open. Not until nine had been burnt alive.
“The collapsible gate opening to the floor was locked and we could see people in flames screaming for help,” said Ghulam Ali, a rescuer.
Zia-ul Halder (27), Krishno Mistry (23), Gulam Murtaza (18), Abdul Halim Halder (22) and Narayan Sheikh (18) are dead. The four others who died in the city’s biggest fire tragedy early this morning in an “illegal” leather bag factory in an “illegal” building on the city’s eastern fringes at Topsia are still to be named.
Twenty more of the around 30 workers of Tenex Exports have suffered severe burn injuries. They were sleeping when the fire started on the third floor of the four-storeyed building at 33C Topsia Road.
Nizamuddin Ahmed, a lawyer who lives next door, said: “It was around 2.15 am and I was watching TV. Suddenly, I heard people screaming… I rushed to the roof and saw smoke billowing out of the third-floor leather unit.”
Residents broke open the main gate, locked from inside. But on reaching the gate to the 3000-sq-ft fire chamber, the rescuers encountered another lock.
“We could not enter the third-floor factory which was ablaze,” said Ali, who, along with two local youths, was the first to enter the building.
Sheikh Khalil, the durwan, had dropped the key in his anxiety to open the gate amid all the chaos.
Firefighters arrived an hour and a half later — by that time, Ali and fellow residents had rescued 18 workers after smashing open the third-floor gate.
Workers sleeping on the first and second floors — also home to leather bag factories — scampered down the narrow staircase to life.
Md Asif and his family — living on the terrace — escaped, using a ladder slung horizontally to the adjacent building.
On the third floor, the flames leapt through two big halls and a storeroom with inflammable leather and adhesives strewn all around.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: “Most of the buildings and the factories in that area are illegal… We have ordered an administrative inquiry.”
While questions were asked how such illegal businesses are proliferating in the area, the residents blamed the locked collapsible gate.
“By the time we could break open the lock with a hammer, it was too late,” said Ahmed, who steered the rescue operation.
The fire services department has lodged FIRs against Khurshid Alam, owner of the building, on charges of illegal construction and the owners of Tenex Exports, Mohammed Sagir Ahmed and Mohammed Asif.