| The McDonald’s shutters land across the road, in front of Flurys. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta, Aug. 12: Shop owner R.Z. Irani watched a surreal “scene out of the movies” on Park Street this morning — a loud bang, metal and glass shards flying and a bystander tossed into the air, the back of his skull blown off.
An explosion at the McDonald’s outlet on the city’s fun street, which flung the joint’s shutters across the road and smashed the windscreens of cars parked nearby, killed a 21-year-old salesman, Aftab Hussain Ansari, and left four employees severely burnt.
The tragedy at the symbol of the lifestyle changes sweeping the city in recent years also claimed a representative of old Park Street.
Bar-B-Q and One Step Up owner S.S. “Baba” Kothari, 70, suffered a heart attack while inspecting the damage to another restaurant he owns, Flavours of China, and died on the way to the Belle Vue clinic. His younger brother Nitin Kothari runs Peter Cat and Mocambo.
What averted a carnage was that it was only 9.34am and the joint was still half an hour from letting in the public. On March 9, the day it opened, the fast-food outlet attracted over 7,000 people.
“Also, imagine if it was a weekday and the area was crowded!” said Monty Agarwal, who had heard the boom from his Park Mansion flat.
Irani’s first reaction was: “It must be a terrorist attack.”
“I was opening my shop when I heard the bang. I turned back to see the McDonald’s shutters landing on the Flurys side of the street, right over a car. The entire stretch was filled with pieces of glass. The other shopkeepers were running and I joined them,” the wine shop proprietor said.
“I had seen such scenes in movies but watching it happen before my eyes filled me with horror. Such a thing has never happened before in Park Street.”
Police commissioner Prasun Mukherjee ruled out sabotage or terror. “We have not found any explosives inside the restaurant,” he said. “We have also seen the footage of the CCTV, which stopped at 9.34am.”
The police and forensic scientists are blaming a snag in the air-conditioner ducts.
“The pressure inside the ducts had risen, compressing the refrigerant Freon gas inside. The pressure burst the pipes and the gas spurted out, collecting mainly near the ceiling because it is lighter than air,” an expert from the state forensic laboratory said.
Around 9.30am, three employees let themselves in through the back, turned the AC on and lit a burner.
Just at that moment Ansari, returning to his Queens’ Mansion flat after buying milk, chose to stop in front of McDonald’s.
“It could have been a spark in the AC or heat from the burner — but it triggered an immediate expansion of the Freon’s volume, increasing the pressure inside the joint and causing the blast,” the expert said. Some of his colleagues suggested the accumulating gas would have exploded anyway, and the lighting of the burner may have been a coincidence.
The injured employees — including a sweeper who was standing outside — are at SSKM Hospital with severe burns. One of them is critical.
Deputy commissioner (south) Jawed Shamim said the burns were caused by the blast’s “heat wave”, not flames.
City police chief Prasun Mukherjee mentioned an alternative theory: sewer water had collected in the outlet’s basement and this could have led to the formation of methane gas that may have caused the explosion. But he clarified that an AC duct burst was the likelier cause.
“The joint’s front part was made mostly of glass and wood and was weaker than the other three walls — that’s why the pressure blew away the shutter. If not, the entire building could have collapsed.”
After the accident, the area was cordoned off and traffic diverted for a few hours.
A release from the McDonald’s authorities said: “Our primary concern at the moment is the welfare and well-being of our customers and our employees. McDonald’s India adheres to the most stringent global safety standards and to all applicable and statutory fire safety norms.”
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