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Baptism of fire before union
- Blaze at wedding-ready banquet hall of Haldiram

Calcutta, Feb. 15: A bride and several guests were forced to stampede out of a banquet hall in Ballygunge just before the wedding as a fire broke out on the fourth-floor facility owned by Haldiram this evening.

The blaze at one of the most prized locations in Calcutta left a catering employee unconscious and charred the decked-out hall as well as the cutlery-laid buffet corner. In the kitchen, skewered cottage cheese cubes hung, tandoored by the fire.

The hall is located in the Haldiram outlet opposite CC&FC (Calcutta Cricket and Football Club).

Unfamiliar scenes of guests in wedding finery rushing out unfolded. So did the sight of some employees lugging away cooking gas cylinders. A leak from a cylinder is suspected to have caused the blaze.

The families of the bride and the groom were confronted with the challenge of a lifetime: where to find an alternative venue at such short notice.

The kith and kin of Manjula Gupta and Manish Beriwal did manage in a few hours what families take months to organise. They found a venue at Girish Park, where the bride’s family lives.

An engagement ceremony on the floor below was also affected.

Soumik Sarkar, 25, who was part of the catering staff, got stuck in the elevator when the building’s power supply was shut down. He was stretchered to a hospital where doctors said he had 15 per cent burns across his body.

“He also had problems because of suffocation. He has regained consciousness. We have kept him under observation,” a doctor at the Calcutta National Medical College and Hospital said.

The fire was noticed around 5pm. “We heard an explosion and immediately the room was filled with thick fumes. The flames engulfed the room within minutes as it had many wooden decorations,” said Ajay Pansari, one of the guests at the wedding of Manish and Manjula. Manish hails from Howrah.

“The families of the bride and the groom had arrived. All of us ran down the stairs. Had the fire broken out a little later, it could have been disastrous as the place would have then been teeming with people,” said Pansari.

Sources said the banquet hall could hold up to 500 people. Pink satin-wrapped chairs sat empty in front of a charred mandap and the buffet table lay soot-stained. The carpet became a mini-pool, collecting the water sprayed by five fire tenders.

Sacharam, a 78-year-old cook who was mid-way through his job in the top-floor kitchen, clambered down an iron scaffolding outside the building.

“I heard cries of people and found smoke had reached the upper floor. I would have suffocated if I took the stairs to come down,” he said.

Vibha Chawla had almost finished styling Manjula for the wedding in the “bride suite” adjoining the banquet hall when the fire broke out.

“Somebody opened the door, shouted that there was a fire and asked us to run. All my make-up stuff, tongs, iron, everything was scattered. With Manjula, her sister and my assistant, we rushed down. I was carrying Manjula’s dupatta. At least 50-odd people were rushing down with us and we saw thick smoke,” Chawla said.

Thick smoke could be seen billowing out of the building from about half a kilometre away around 5.30pm.

Sreyasi Deogharia and Soumi Mukherjee, students of Calcutta Medical College and Hospital, were hanging out in the food court on the second floor. “I got a burning smell but never thought there was a fire. The employees at the food court alerted us,” said Soumi.

The Ballygunge Haldiram belongs to Mahesh Agarwal, who owns Pratik Food Products and also runs an outlet at the Exide crossing.

He is the brother of Prabhu Shankar Agarwal, who owns the brand that runs under the name Haldiram’s Prabhuji.

Prabhu was arrested in 2005 for allegedly engaging a hitman, Gopal Tiwari, to shoot the nephew of a tea-stall owner in Burrabazar. Investigations had suggested Prabhu wanted to open a business outlet at a place where the tea-stall owner was a tenant and reluctant to vacate possession. Sentenced to life imprisonment by Bankshall court, he got bail from the Supreme Court in 2010.

Mahesh’s Haldiram has a history of fires. The Exide crossing outlet caught fire on November 19, 2008. Six tenders fought for around six hours to douse the blaze. The November fire was the second incident in three months and third in a year.

In February 2009, the high court had set conditions for the reopening of the Exide crossing outlet. Justice Sanjib Banerjee had ruled that the owner could not store more than 23 gas cylinders in the kitchen.

“The remaining cylinders can be kept in a storeroom which should be at least three metres from the outlet. The storeroom can be used subject to the approval of authorised gas dealers and the fire department,” the judge had said.

In Ballygunge today, dozens of cylinders were taken out of the building after the fire and packed into a van.

According to rules, a food joint should use a commercial gas cylinder that weighs 19.5kg and costs Rs 1,923, which comes to around Rs 100 a kilo. Fully subsidised domestic cylinders, weighing 14.2kg, are priced at Rs 416 or Rs 29.2/kg. The non-subsidised domestic cylinders — also 14.2kg — cost Rs 1169, which means Rs 82.3/kg.

The director-general of the West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services, D.P. Tarenia, said: “The kitchen adjacent to the banquet hall is suspected to be the source of fire. It appears that a leak in a gas cylinder or in the pipe that connects it to the oven triggered the blaze.”

after the fire: inside and outside