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Building shut but minister ‘eager’ to declare it open

“Closed until fire-safety clearance comes and CESC restores power supply,” says building society.

“How can the building be allowed to reopen minus mandatory fire preparedness?” asks the fire department.

“No problem for us barring the three (fire-ravaged) floors,” declares the fire minister.

Chatterjee International, the 23-storey Chowringhee landmark that was lucky to escape a fire tragedy on Tuesday morning, appeared even luckier the next day to get a virtual clean chit from the fire services minister.

The blaze triggered by an overheated air-conditioner didn’t spread beyond three floors and the timing of the incident — around 8.30am, when most of the office crowd hadn’t come in — saved many lives. The bigger shock was learning that one of Calcutta’s tallest highrises doesn’t have basic safety buffers such as smoke sensors and sprinklers.

Officials involved in the fire-fighting and rescue operation on Tuesday said they were shocked by Chatterjee International’s lack of preparedness to combat a blaze that could have easily ensnared scores of office workers had it occurred even half an hour later.

Chatterjee International, which houses around 250 offices, was shut on Wednesday and unsure about when the requisite clearances would come for it to be able to resume business. But fire services minister Javed Khan contradicted everyone by saying that his department didn’t have any objection to all but three floors of the building being reopened.

“The fire-fighting arrangements in the building were more or less active….The hydrants were used to draw water from a proper underground reservoir. Only the three affected floors have to be kept closed since forensic teams are carrying out an inspection,” the minister said at Nabanna, the new state secretariat.

Nobody was more surprised to hear minister Khan’s endorsement of the building’s fire-fighting preparedness than his own department. “We are hearing for the first time that a few floors of a building are vulnerable (and the rest are safe). Even if one portion of a structure is vulnerable to fire, it means the entire building is unsafe,” an official said.

While the fire services department hasn’t yet issued a notice to the management to keep the building shut, it couldn’t have reopened anyway because the CESC has snapped power supply.

But the fire services minister’s remark did trigger confusion over whether it meant Chatterjee International was free to reopen, barring three floors. “When the minister himself is saying that fire-fighting mechanisms in the building are adequate, how do we contradict him?” the official said.

Around 2pm on Wednesday, a notice was put up outside the main gate, announce that “entry to the building is restricted for safety reasons…”

Some office owners had been allowed to enter the building before the notice came up.

The business establishments gutted in Tuesday’s fire include AM Mobile Telecom Pvt Ltd’s office in room number 12 on the 16th floor. All statutory papers, stationery, computers and monitors in the office were destroyed. “This is a big loss for the company,” said AM Mobile’s director Ajay Laddha, who plans to shift to a “temporary office”.

An office of Techno India on the 15th floor had been renovated only last month. Most of the furniture was either gutted or damaged by the water used to douse the flames.

“There is water in the lift ducts. CESC has snapped power supply and will restore the connection only after the fire services department gives the go-ahead,” said a member of the court-appointed committee responsible for the upkeep of the highrise.

Sources in the fire services department said the building didn’t have a single trained fire-fighter. The rule book states that every commercial establishment and certain categories of residential buildings must hire trained fire-fighters.

The managing committee of Chatterjee International Center couldn’t say when a fire-safety drill was last conducted, let alone produce a logbook for such procedures.

“We discovered that Group D employees like lift operators, peons and housekeepers make up the fire-fighting staff at Chatterjee International,” an official said.

The highrise, which was for many years the tallest building in Calcutta, came up in the 1970s, at least two decades before amendments were made to the West Bengal Fire Services Act to make modern fire-fighting mechanisms mandatory.