The top floors of Stephen Court on fire on Tuesday afternoon. At the bottom are the landmark Peter Cat restaurant and the Music World outlet. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, March 23: Five people trapped in a towering inferno on Park Street today took a fatal leap of faith while 14 others were charred as firemen with primitive equipment and little training battled the blaze in the 80-year-old tinderbox structure housing several city landmarks.
The tragedy at Stephen Court, seven storeys tall and spread across four blocks that include the popular Flurys and Peter Cat restaurants along with the Music World store and assorted offices and residential flats, provided the first known instance in this city of people jumping to their death to escape a blaze.
The flames were first noticed on the eastern side of the buildings fourth floor around 2.05pm, but it wasnt until 3.30pm that the requisite fire-fighting equipment, including skylifts meant to reach the higher floors, arrived. By then, nine of the trapped victims had jumped 40 to 60 feet from window ledges between the fourth and sixth floors even as the crowd milling on the street pleaded with them to wait for help.
Only four of those who jumped survived, landing on the outstretched hands of a few brave men who tried to cushion their fall in the absence of nets or mattresses that could have saved more lives.
Of the 19 dead, 14 remained unidentified till late tonight. The other five are Shruti Bansal, 45, Vivek Upadhyaya, 30, Saurav Barik, 25, Pradip Kumar Chokhany, 40, and R. Krishnan, in his 60s.
At least 25 of the survivors, most of them rescued from the lower floors, suffered trauma injuries and suffocation. Five of them are in intensive care.
Fire department officials blamed traffic congestion for the nearly one-and-a-half-hour delay in two skylifts arriving from the Sector V fire station, around 12km away.
Fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee fended off allegations about his departments delayed response to the blaze, saying the first two fire engines started from the Free School Street headquarters, a two-minute drive from Stephen Court, within 10 minutes of receiving the fire call.
I do not understand why people are blaming the fire department. Stephen Court is an old building with wooden staircases. Within 30 minutes, the flames spread through the stairs. That is why the fire was so big. I think my department reacted very swiftly, said Chatterjee, lately obsessed with the alleged lack of fire-safety measures in the IPL Club Lounge deck at the Eden.
Forty-one fire engines deployed over six hours kept the blaze from spreading to the third floor but the upper tiers were gutted. Till 9pm, flames were visible inside the building, originally a five-storeyed structure to which two more floors were added in 1984.
Police commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti was heard blaming the caretakers of the building for the fire going out of control. They did not have a building layout ready for the firemen to find their way through the mammoth structure, he said.
But nobody had any answer to questions about why the police had failed to seal off Park Street from all sides the moment the fire was reported or why all the equipment necessary to fight the blaze and rescue survivors wasnt on stand-by in the fire brigade headquarters.
Citizens and brave but untrained and ill-equipped firemen did their best to rescue trapped survivors, many of them elderly people. A 98-year-old woman, Ganeshri Devi Golcha, was among those rescued.
Sarla Butta, a resident of Stephen Court for the last 47 years, recalled that before the top two floors were built there used to be a common terrace that connected all the four blocks. One could easily cross over and reach the ground floor from the eight staircases, including four spiral stairs, one at the rear of each block.
But after the fifth and sixth floors came up, these exits were closed. Each block now has only one independent staircase. I believe that the lives that were lost today could have been saved had the staircases at the rear still existed, she said.
The top two floors have 32 apartments, most of them rented out. The police suspect an electrical short-circuit in the lift could have started the fire. Forensic officers will visit the site tomorrow.
The police have opened three helplines — 100, 22143230 and 22143024 — for information about missing persons.