| Firemen battle the blaze in Burrabazar on Saturday morning. Picture by Pabitra Das
Calcutta, Dec. 21: Forty fire-tenders and nearly 500 firemen, police and Rapid Action Force personnel took 12 hours to bring the leaping flames at Ludhiana Hosiery Building in Burrabazar under control today.
The blaze — the biggest in recent memory, surpassing the fires at Firpo’s Market and the McKinsey building on Strand Road — has sparked suspicions of sabotage, with real estate sharks being blamed.
The three-storeyed, 103-year-old building at 171A Mahatma Gandhi Road, with 40 tenants who paid an average monthly rent of only Rs 250, was recently bought by a Howrah-based businessman.
Only the skeleton of the huge Ludhiana Building, said to be eastern India’s biggest wholesale market for woollens where daily business transactions ran into crores of rupees, remains.
With winter having set in, traders had stocked large quantities of inflammable woollen garments made in Ludhiana. Much of the stocks was meant for distribution to other eastern states. Sections on each floor also had scores of crammed residences.
A small fire was first noticed in a corner of the building around 12.45 am. “It initially appeared similar to the five insignificant fires in this building that have occurred in the last five years,” said Sushil Joshi, a resident. But the flames quickly spread to five smaller structures behind Ludhiana Building, causing considerable damage.
“It was difficult to confine the blaze to the building alone as, one after the other, LPG cylinders stocked inside started exploding,” said a weary fireman. All four floors of the building were reduced to ashes. By 5.30 am, the fire had completely engulfed the building. Three hours later, the roof collapsed in a heap, along with the beams supporting it.
As the blaze raged, people cried out for help. “Five elderly and handicapped persons were trapped on the top floor,” said a fireman later. He, and the huge crowd that had gathered, had begun to give up hope on their rescue.
“But with the help of a gigantic hydraulic platform, our men reached the floor and we were able to save them,” said director of fire services B.M. Sen.
Local residents helped the 150-odd inhabitants escape from the back door of the building, leading to Cotton Street. By dawn, nearly 200 people from surrounding buildings had been evacuated. About 50 people, including a few firemen, suffered minor injuries.
Fire engines had a trying time reaching the structures behind Ludhiana Building where the blaze had spread, as they had to negotiate a narrow lane and go past the burning main building.
After initial reports that a short circuit was to blame, some officials, including the mayor, and residents alleged that it had been planned.
The Calcutta Municipal Corporation had declared the building “unsafe” nearly two years ago. Even as the owner’s brother was picked up for interrogation, deputy commissioner of police (central) Zulfiquar Hassan, who is in charge of the inquiry, said the “sabotage angle” would be the main focus of investigation.
But officials added that the large number of dangling electrical wires and widespread hooking could have caused a short circuit.
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