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Shanties gutted in night blaze

Rajan Advani was about to go to bed around 11.30pm on Saturday when he heard a loud explosion outside.

He rushed to the balcony of his fourth-floor apartment on Tiljala Road only to see his worst fears come true. The shanties along the railway tracks in his backyard were on fire.

The blaze raged through the night, gutting at least 400 shanties and all the belongings of the residents.

“All I could see was flames, as high as 40-50 feet. Women were running out clinging to their children,” recounted the resident of Park View Apartments.

Within a few minutes the leaping flames, fuelled by the inflammable materials the shanties were made of and fanned by a strong breeze, were threatening to engulf the row of residential highrises around 50 metres from the tracks.

Between the tracks and the highrises are four rows of shanties.

The Alams who live in a third-floor apartment started to prepare to evacuate around midnight after the flames kept growing bigger and bigger.

“I told my wife and children to be ready to leave any moment because it seemed our building would not remain untouched,” said Qamar Alam, a businessman.

Hundreds of families in highrises on Tiljala Road were making similar plans when the wind changed its direction and firemen managed to control the blaze.

“Suddenly the breeze started blowing east. The direction of the flames changed, too,” said Advani.

But the change in the direction of the breeze was not of much help and more shanties started going up in flames.

Residents and witnesses said the fire started with an explosion around 11.30pm. “I saw a big ball of fire go up in the air. Before I could realise what was happening, the fire started engulfing the shanties rapidly,” recounted Inamul Haque, a student and resident of one of the gutted shanties.

He was sitting beside the railway tracks when the explosion occurred.

There are more than 2,000 shanties on either side of the tracks between Park Circus and Sealdah stations. The fire broke out in a cluster located near the route that goes towards the Gobra graveyard.

The firemen had to dismantle a lot of shanties in order to prevent the fire from spreading.

“According to our estimates, close to 400 shanties were gutted on both sides of the tracks. The fire spread very quickly because of the inflammable materials like tarpaulin sheets and bamboo poles that the shanties are made of. The presence of glue and rubber in many of the shanties that double as sweatshops helped spread the fire,” said a senior fire department officer who was supervising the rescue operation on Saturday night.

Twenty-five fire tenders worked through the night and doused the flames around 5am.

The residents of most of the gutted shanties failed to salvage anything. “All my school certificates and other documents have got burnt,” said Haque, rummaging through the charred remains of what was his house even till a few hours ago.

“The residents were mostly rag-pickers, sweepers and rickshaw-pullers. Most of them have lost everything in the fire,” said Shafqat Alam, assistant co-ordinator of the Tiljala Society for Human and Educational Development, an NGOss that has been working for the poor people of the area since 1987.

Two centres of the organisation where children of the shanties used to get free education were gutted, too.