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Brick by brick, Stephen Court rises

The haunting soot-covered facade and broken pillars stared at anyone who looked up at the fire-ravaged Stephen Court, 18 Park Street, from Middleton Row until a few months ago.

But eerie signs of the tragedy that had engulfed the seven-storey 90-year-old landmark on March 23, 2010, are slowly fading — at least on the outside.

The blackened outer walls and the broken pillars, which peeled off in the fierce heat, have been restored. Four new emergency fire exits being built and at least four of the 16 gutted flats are ready for residents to move in — thanks to a Rs 2.8-crore restoration project under the Stephen Court Welfare Society.

This unregistered association had pooled in the money at the rate of Rs 100 a sq feet from the 110 house-owners of the building.

Stephen Court, spread across four blocks that include the popular Flurys and Peter Cat restaurants and assorted offices and residential flats, was built by Armenian hotelier and real estate developer Arathoon Stephen. Two floors were added in 1984.

Four years after a short-circuit, according to the investigation led by former chief secretary S.N. Roy, triggered the blaze that started on the eastern side of the building’s fourth floor and killed 43 people by the time it was extinguished, residents hope to return to their flats by this year-end. Before that, the restored structure will have to pass the mandatory stability and fire-safety tests.

On the fourth anniversary of the inferno, the ground floor remains a bustling presence in the city’s heart but the upper floors look like a shell of their former selves.

Metro peeks through the mortar dust and metal mesh.

Facade

Then: The facade of the fifth and sixth floors facing Middleton Street crumbled in the intense heat. The lower floors overlooking Middleton Street and portions of the fifth and sixth storeys on the Park Street side were blackened by the smoke that rose so high that it was visible from Howrah.

Concrete on outer walls around the courtyard peeled off like lemon skin. Some portions had to broken to let firefighters in.

Now: The entire outer facade of the fifth and sixth floors has been scrapped off and relaid while the blackened blemishes on the less-affected lower floors were removed.

A fresh coat of cement has been put on the walls. The old concrete sewer pipeline has been dismantled and replaced with cost-effective PVC pipes. Engineers say a coat of Ming yellow paint will be put later.

Staircase

Then: An emergency staircase, so narrow that even two lean men had difficulty walking side by side, ran from the ground floor to the terrace. Two other staircases reached only the fourth floor. These were in such bad shape that residents seldom used them.

The S.N. Roy Commission attributed the high number of casualties to the lack of escape routes. Many died jumping off windows after failing to find a way to the terrace. Those who clambered up the lone staircase despite the thick smoke were stuck near the locked roof door. Firefighters later found 17 charred bodies on that staircase.

Now: Four new emergency exits run down from (or up to) the terrace and the existing one got refurbished. A spiral iron stairwell fitted to an outer wall of the building will be extended to the terrace. An engineer says the stairs are at least 3ft wide in accordance with fire and emergency norms.

Water

Then: No water tank reserved for fire-related emergencies.

Now: A one-lakh-litre underground water reservoir in the courtyard that was earlier used as parking space.

Another 20,000-litre capacity tank is being built to put out a fire. These tanks are designed in such a way that overflowing water from reservoirs for everyday use will collect there and cut loss and stagnancy.

Sprinklers

Then: None

Now: The shops and offices on the ground floor have installed automatic water sprinklers and fire alarms.

The refit budget includes these gadgets which will be installed on all the floors once the masons are through with their work. A high-pressure water pump that runs on diesel will be used to operate the sprinklers and hoses.

Wires

Then: A messy mesh of loose live wires infested the building, especially the common areas and staircases. The casing that held the meter boxes at the base of the building’s staircase was left open, always. Cables jutting out of the boxes had sparked minor fires over the past decades. These fires were put out and ignored until the big one in 2010.

Now: Most of the exposed electrical wires have been replaced with insulated cables and concealed conduit pipes. The boxes are now covered and will get an extra casing for further protection.

Lifts

Then: Four collapsible-door elevators. According to the SN Roy commission, one of the elevators malfunctioned in 2010 and possibly sparked a short circuit that caused the fire.

Now: Some residents were allowed to move in after the blaze after they signed a risk bond but the lifts remained off-limits for them.

The plan is to replace the old elevators with modern ones, funds permitting, an association member says.

Controversy

Some of the residents returned to their fire-ravaged flats on a six-month risk bond two months after the tragedy but never moved out.

They had apparently refused to shell out their share for the renovation and, instead, accused the association of stealing from the pool.

“The association is unregistered and the members have not given us an acceptable balance sheet of the money spent from the fund. Then again, why should I pay such a hefty amount when my flat and the area near it have remained pretty much unaffected by the fire?” asked D.K. Bibra, a first-floor resident.

The association defended its restoration work.

“The current expense statement and the account balance were given to all the residents. Some residents are reluctant to pay just because their portion of the building was not damaged,” said Debasis Guha Neogi, who lives in a sixth-floor apartment that was partially gutted.

Officialspeak

The fire department says it would not issue an NOC (no-objection certificate) until it is “fully convinced” that all safety guidelines have been adhered to. “Last year we found that some safety stipulations were lacking. We will make a fresh inspection,” says a senior fire officer.