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Chowringhee landmark charred

Employees trapped in an office at Chatterjee International wave pieces of red cloth from a window to draw the attention of rescuers.

Fire brigade personnel use a Bronto skylift to reach a section of the 15th floor where the blaze started and break some window panes to find people trapped inside.

Pictures by Anindya Shankar Ray and Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

Calcutta’s tallest building for many years turned into a towering inferno on Tuesday morning but was spared a human tragedy like Stephen Court, thanks to the blaze starting when only a fraction of the 4,000-odd people who work across the 23-storey structure had come in.

A housekeeping team at Chatterjee International was the first to spot smoke streaming out of a gap in the door of a 15th-floor office of Aditya Birla Money at 8.30am, less than an hour before the entire building would have been buzzing with people.

By the time the building’s electrical department had switched off power supply, smoke billowing out of room number 12 on the 15th floor was visible from cars zipping through the Park Street flyover 150ft below. Many stopped on the road to call up people to convey the news. Some went click-click with their mobile phone cameras.

As the fire raged, those trapped inside and their families outside possibly relived the nightmare of Stephen Court, hardly 500 metres away on Park Street. The blaze on March 23, 2010, had claimed 46 lives, most of them employees of offices spread across the building.

Chatterjee International, and those inside, were lucky to escape a similar tragedy despite the building being less than prepared for a fire such as the one on Tuesday. There was no casualty and the list of injured was small, including some firemen and seven employees trapped in an office on the 21st floor. Most of them had minor burn and cut injuries and complained of breathlessness.

“Nobody was seriously injured in the fire. However, several offices were damaged, some because of the fire and the rest because of the water we had to spray to cool down the building,” the director-general of fire services, Sanjay Mukherjee, said.

Fire brigade officials suspect the fire originated from an overheated air-conditioner that someone had forgotten to switch off before leaving for home on Monday. “The coils probably got burnt, leading to the blaze,” said a fire brigade official who was among the first to reach the site.

The flames were doused in three hours, the operation involving 21 fire engines, two skylifts and two ladders.

Built in 1976, Chatterjee International lacks basic safety devices like smoke sensors and fire alarms. The building’s managing society had built a 2.5lakh-litre underground water reservoir and installed hydrants after the Stephen Court blaze but the lack of regular fire drills and awareness about how to tackle an emergency showed.

The fire brigade said the hydrants couldn’t be used immediately after smoke had been detected because power supply had been switched off.

“Electricians took more than 30 minutes to tweak the power connection so that water could be drawn from the underground reservoir through the hydrants,” an official said. “Had the managing society installed basic safety devices such as fire alarms and smoke detectors, the fire would have been spotted earlier and the loss of property could have been minimised.”

The lack of preparedness, a malaise that afflicts the majority of highrises in a city with a dubious history of fire tragedies, was evident in other aspects too. The entry and exit lanes are just about enough for a car to squeeze in, let alone a fire engine. The shortage of space delayed the fire-fighting operation, sources said.

“We will run a check and rework our fire-safety mechanism,” said Mahesh Prahladka, an official of the society.

While a handful of people who were in the building made a quick exit to safety, seven employees of the share trading firm SKP Securities Ltd were trapped on the 21st floor.

(Top) A fireman atop a Bronto skylift that was used to reach the 15th floor of Chatterjee International, where the fire on Tuesday morning originated; (below) the floor plan of the 23-storey building that was once the tallest structure in Calcutta. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

The trapped employees frantically waved a piece of red fabric from an open window and even threw a sheaf of papers to draw the attention of rescuers below.

They were saved by fire brigade personnel who entered the building by breaking open some glass windows facing the Park Street flyover on the 15th floor. The firemen had reached that height on a skylift.

Everyone was escorted down through the second staircase of the building.

“I first thought it was a small fire and kept working. Around 15 minutes later, the smell of something burning hit my nose. I began to panic,” recalled Sanwar Agarwal, an accounts manager at the share trading office.

As smoke rapidly filled the 8000sq ft office, Sanwar and seven colleagues were huddled in a corner room. Sometime later, they went upstairs and broke a glass door to reach the terrace. They were rescued another 20 minutes later.

Soumen Bag, a 30-year-old employee of Marine Services on the 18th floor, had been inside the building for barely 10 minutes when he smelt something burning. “Smoke filled the entire room within minutes. I was very scared,” recounted Bag, who ran down the second staircase.

Chatterjee International houses more than 300 offices ranging from between 1000sq ft and 8000sq ft. Some of them have been divided into smaller spaces and let out to others.

“When I reached the building, my office seemed safe. But after half an hour, even the 16th floor was in flames. I pleaded with the police and fire brigade officers to let me go upstairs but they refused. I don’t know how I will ever make up for the losses I suffered today,” said Santosh Gupta, owner of AA Mobiles.

The mobile phone distributor operates out of room number 12 on the 16th floor, right above the office on the 15th floor where the fire started.

The police used portable loudspeakers to ask the crowd outside the building to stay away. “We will not allow anyone to enter the building till the fire brigade gives permission to do so. All of you please go back home today and get in touch with your office management to know whether the offices will remain open tomorrow,” Murli Dhar, the deputy commissioner of police (south), announced.

Rajeev Mishra, joint commissioner of police (headquarters), said the army had been requested to keep a helicopter ready, just in case one was required. “We contacted Fort William and got a prompt response. The army communicated our request to the air force base in Barrackpore, which assured us of a helicopter within 15 minutes of a call.”

It wasn’t required.

Fire and emergency services minister Javed Khan, mayor Sovan Chatterjee and youth affairs minister Arup Biswas visited Chatterjee International during the day.

“The chief minister called me from north Bengal. She wanted to know the situation,” mayor Chatterjee said.

Fire services minister Javed Khan said an inquiry would be instituted. “We will also run a check on the building’s fire preparedness.”

The absence of a central air-conditioning system at Chatterjee International was a blessing in disguise. At AMRI Dhakuria on December 9, 2011, smoke from a basement fire had reached the wards on the second, third and fourth floors through the AC ducts.

Chatterjee International’s last known tryst with fire was in 1995 when two offices of a chit fund company on the 14th floor were gutted.

‘I cursed myself for not exiting earlier’
Sanwar Agarwal, a 51-year-old accounts manager with a share trading firm, was at his workstation on the 21st floor of Chatterjee International by 8am on Tuesday. Around 8.30am, a colleague of his called to say everyone was stuck downstairs because of a fire. He continued working, thinking it would be taken care of. Sanwar recounts to Metro the horror story that unfolded barely 15 minutes later

A little before 8.45am, I called my family to tell them a fire had broken out at Chatterjee International. I also cursed myself for not exiting 15 minutes earlier.

Cowering in a corner room with seven others, I felt very scared. My colleagues downstairs were calling to say we should run down the stairs. But I couldn’t be sure the floors below ours were safe. My wife and children were calling me every few minutes, asking me to either run down or reach the terrace. My boss suggested that we open the windows and lie down on the floor, allowing the smoke to escape.

I found a red cloth and waved it from a window while my colleague Ranjan Bhattacharya stepped out to see whether we could use the stairs to reach the terrace. All of us did so. On reaching the terrace, we found the door locked. Luckily for us, it was a glass door with a wooden frame. It saved us. The building society had changed the door after the fire in Stephen Court (in 2010). My colleague Feroze kicked the glass and shattered it. We stepped into the terrace through the broken glass, one by one. It was around 9.30am then.

I stood on the side facing the Park Street flyover and waved the red cloth again. Around 15 minutes later, a man wearing a mask and a helmet reached the terrace. He asked us not to panic. We asked for water.

Another 10 to 15 minutes went by before 10 men, all wearing masks, reached the terrace. They were carrying water bottles and masks for all of us. We drank some water, put on the masks and slowly started walking down the stairs, guided by our rescuers. Much of the staircase was filled with smoke. My elder son, who was downstairs, called me. I told him that we were on our way down. Around 10.30am, I finally stepped out of the building.

I was still having difficulty breathing. Ranjan was unwell too. An ambulance took us to National Medical College on CIT Road. My elder son Anuj was with me. I spoke to my younger son Akash and wife Kanchan over the phone.

The doctors didn’t find anything serious and I was allowed to leave. Another 30 minutes later, I was home. God saved me today. Had the door to the terrace not been of glass, who knows what would have happened.

As told to Subhajoy Roy

 

a FIERY PAST

Satyanarayan Park AC Market

April 22, 2003

Casualties: none

Fire in the two-storey underground market damaged hundreds of shops, which had smoke detectors and sprinklers but the system didn’t work because of lack of maintenance

 

Nandram market complex

January 12, 2008

Casualty: none

2,500 shops were gutted in the 14-storey market as the blaze continued for over four days. Illegal storage of combustible substances and blocked passages aggravated the situation

 

Stephen Court

March 23, 2010

Casualties: 46

Five persons leapt to their death and many were charred or smothered inside the seven-storey Park Street address. At least 17 people could have lived had the key to the terrace lock been found

 

AMRI hospitals

December 9, 2011

Casualties: 91

91 patients and staff choked to death on toxic fumes from a basement fire. A short circuit ignited combustible substances and formed a lethal cocktail of gases

 

Hiralal Market Complex

February 26, 2013

Casualties: 19

People died in their sleep in the building near Sealdah station. It didn’t have escape routes or fire-fighting gear while inflammable items were stored there