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Spared, trader rues the wrongs

“Your shop is on fire!” the words hit 61-year-old Ramesh (named changed on request) with gale force the moment he lifted the latch to see who had knocked on his door at 4.10am.

The bleary-eyed trader stared at the visitor for a second before starting to run barefoot towards 35 APC Road, a few blocks away. The only thing he remembers of that run is his heart pounding.

Nine hours later, Ramesh recounted to Metro how hope turned into despair and then anger as he made his way through the debris at 35 APC Road.

I felt a stab in my chest but I kept running. I don’t know how long it took me but when I reached, the building was covered in black smoke and people were running helter-skelter, many of them carrying a bucketful of water each. The main entrance to the market was not visible but I could hear cries for help from behind the curtain of smoke.

I saw some familiar faces trying to remove the hinges of a gate. One of the youths was bleeding from a leg after he scaled a gate, only to hurt himself. At least he had reached the gate and could be rescued; some of the other trapped people didn’t come that far.

I continued running towards my shop, located at the APC Road end of the market, adjoining a pavement. I saw from a distance that the flames hadn’t reached that part of the building. I almost slumped on the pavement, weary but relieved.

The relief did not last long as my daughter and son-in-law, who live nearby, came running towards me and said the entire ground floor and the mezzanine section above it had been gutted. Worse, several shop owners and their employees were feared dead. A shiver ran down my spine.

I got up and we hurried towards the entrance. We could still hear screams inside. We asked the firefighters why they weren’t going inside and saving people. They said they did not have the tools to break the locked gates or enough fire-retardant suits and smoke masks to send their men in.

A group of youths who had broken open a lock to go inside soon came out coughing. “It’s impossible to stay there,” one of them said.

Something told me my shop wasn’t out of danger yet, so I went back to that side of the building. Flames had engulfed a store just three rooms away by then. I requested a fire brigade officer to ask his men to spray water on that portion to keep the fire from spreading. He ignored me.

In the next 20 minutes, the shop adjacent to mine and a medicine store above it on the first floor were gutted. Only then did the firemen pay some attention to what I was saying. “What can we do? The layout is so confusing,” an official said.

I can tell you that everything about the building has been wrong since the day it was opened.

The emergency staircase was replaced with living quarters long ago. Fire-fighting equipment was never installed. A mezzanine floor was illegally carved out of the 18-foot-high ground floor housing the bazaar and people soon started living there, converting shops into homes. Recently, a building owner’s wife set up a guesthouse on the first floor.

A few of us had warned that a disaster was waiting to happen, especially with the stacks of plastic, carton and paper goods inside the market. We had approached the corporation officials on several occasions but no action was taken.

After the fire at Nandram market, we had held meetings and proposed to install fire-fighting equipment but neither the owners nor the majority of traders agreed. So our proposal was never implemented. Some of the traders even threatened us.

After what happened today, I wish we were firm on safety.

As told to Tamaghna Banerjee