Kurseong, Nov. 4: The cream-coloured arched gateway with Monteviot engraved in black-and-white stands lonely amid the ruins of the Monteviot tea estate factory. It is the only reminder of the huge British-era wooden structure that stood against the backdrop of the blue mountains till early this morning.
Minutes after the clock struck five today, flames devoured the tealeaf processing factory, one of the oldest in the hills.
The fire is said to have been sparked by a short circuit. No injuries have been reported.
The fire was reported by local residents who saw fumes billowing out from behind the factory. The fire tenders ' the station is located just above the tea garden ' rushed in around 6.20 am but could do little to salvage the situation.
'I spotted black fumes coming out from the back side of the factory and rushed to inform my friends. We went to arrange for water and inform the manager. When we returned, the fire had spread beyond control,' said Ajay Rai, the factory guard.
'I got the message at 6 in the morning and immediately called up the police. The police then informed the fire brigade officials who arrived by 6:30 am. Until then, the residents were fighting to hold back the fire. We cannot say what exactly caused the fire but there must have been a short circuit somewhere,' said tea garden manager Y.D.P. Sinha.
Around 7,211 kg of packaged tea that would have sold for Rs 30-40 lakh was lost in the fire. According to the management, property worth a crore has been destroyed.
As residents slammed the fire brigade for its late entry, the officer-in-charge of the Kurseong fire station Sukumar Ghosh said: 'The late arrival was mainly due to the narrow road that led up to this place. There is also little water storage facility in this area. We have notified the Kurseong municipality about the problem but to no avail. The two reservoirs of the municipality remain empty during emergencies.'
Residents of the area have also claimed that the fire tenders were half-filled, which prevented them from controlling the blaze.
The Monteviot tea estate factory was established in 1871 and employed 134 workers.
The factory was spread over 13,080 sq ft and housed, according to the management, machinery valued at Rs 80 lakh. It also stocked medicines worth Rs 10,000.
Standing in the middle of mangled iron sheds, twisted metal rods and the rubble, Ram Bahadur could not stop the tears. 'I worked here for 40 years. This was like my second home,' said the retired worker, unable to speak any more.
There were many more like him standing at the spot, staring around, speechlessly.
Taken over by Sampad Vikas Company from Goodricke in February this year, Monteviot Tea Estate is the fifth owned by the group to be gutted.
The management has, however, promised to relocate the workers in Ambudia tea garden, the only surviving tea garden owned by the company. 'The mishap will not affect the future of the workers. We are trying our best to accommodate them elsewhere. The plucked leaves will be sent to Ambudia tea estate from tomorrow. Work will not stop,' said the manager.