| B. Barooah College goes up in flames on Thursday. Picture by Eastern Projections
Guwahati, March 3: Assam's third oldest educational institution, the 62-year-old B. Borooah College, was today reduced to ashes in a devastating blaze that began around 6.40 pm and razed for nearly three hours.
At ground zero, all that remained were mangled metal and a few half-burnt wooden planks jutting out from the smouldering embers.
In the hearts of hundreds of pupils past and present, all that remained were memories of an educational institution whose founder principal was also the state's first chief minister, Gopinath Bordoloi.
'Everything is finished,' cried incumbent principal Rekha Deka, who watched helplessly along with hundreds of others as flames leapt from one portion of the structure to another.
Barring the department of zoology, a portion of the physics department and the newly built auditorium, nothing could be saved.
There were murmurs of foul play because the fire appeared to have started simultaneously at both ends of the semi-circular old college building.
Home minister Rockybul Hussain, however, pleaded for restraint. 'it is too early to say anything. We will know only after the investigation is over,' he said at the site of the blaze.
The students and staff of the college expressed anger over the delayed start of the fire-fighting operation.
Inmates of the boys' hostel, attached to the college, said the first fire-tender arrived nearly half-an-hour after the fire was detected.
'The damage could have been minimised had the fire-tenders reached the spot on time. They hadn't arrived when I came to see the college burning,' said Arunima Bharali, a lecturer in the department of modern Indian languages.
Students blocked the entire stretch of Nehru Stadium Road and shouted slogans against the fire service department.
Jatin Mipun, the director of the State Fire Service Organisation, denied allegations of a delay in dousing the flames. 'We did whatever we could. The fire spread very fast, thanks to the wooden structure,' he said.
As many as 16 fire-tenders were pressed into service initially. Additional fire-tenders from the army and the airport were brought in later, but the blaze just kept growing bigger and bigger.
Sheaves of answer-scripts of the higher secondary final and degree examinations were lost in the fire. The college was open till 4.30 pm because of the examinations.
Kamrup (metropolitan) district extra assistant commissioner Hitesh Debsarma said the degree examination centre had been shifted to Cotton College.
Some students who had come out for an evening stroll said they saw the fire starting at the examination branch. They claimed to have heard a deafening sound resembling an explosion.
The police said an LPG cylinder kept at the examination branch may have exploded. The intensity of the fire was such that the flames could be seen from rooftops of two-storeyed buildings as far as those along GNB Road, Ambari and Gandhi Basti.
The wind carried burnt pages of books to as far as Guwahati-Shillong Road.
The road in front of the college was filled with people watching the inferno with horror in their eyes.
The police said firemen faced difficulty in containing the blaze because the area plunged into darkness. Visibility was further reduced by the thick veil of smoke.
Senior superintendent of police Vijayakrishna Ramisetti, who was at the spot, said the possibility of sabotage would be investigated.
A college employee said some books in the library were damaged by heat and water.