The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Blaze toll mounts to nine
Screams for help still ring in the ears

Kudrat ke is khel mein, mera sab kuch chala gaya'. Sabhi hamare aankhon ke samne ek ek karke mare gaye aur hum kuch na kar sake (In this game played by Fate, I have lost everything' One by one, each of them died in front of my eyes and I could do nothing).

Mohammad Idris Khan was despair by another name as he stood in front of the Calcutta Police morgue, his soiled white shirt a testimony to Wednesday night's tragedy.

In the blaze that engulfed the second floor of a Colootola Street building, Idris lost four grandsons, two sons and a daughter.

Wife Saimunnesa is fighting for life at Calcutta Medical College and Hospital.

'I had gone to a mosque to offer prayers. On hearing of the fire, I rushed home, only to see my flat ablaze and the children trapped inside. I kept hurling buckets of water on the flames till the fire brigade personnel arrived.

'After the fire was doused, I entered the apartment and pulled out the children, one by one. We rushed to the hospital, where the doctor declared them dead,' Idris recounted, tears trickling down his unshaven cheeks.

With the death of 20-year-old Razia Khatoon early on Thursday, the total number of casualties in the Colootola fire went up to nine.

The medical examination reports confirmed that all the victims had died not of burns, but of suffocation.

'We have found the cause of death to be cardio-respiratory failure, rather than burns. It shows the victims were suffocated to death,' said Amarendra Biswas, deputy superintendent of Calcutta Medical College and Hospital.

The day after the tragedy, Razia's father Tayyab Hussain, a vocalist of the Tansen gharana, was still in shock.

'She, along with Shamiran Bibi (another victim), went to Idris's flat for a cup of tea five minutes before the fire broke out. On hearing their screams, I rushed there, but could not enter the flat. Flames blocked the only door. I could hear Razia screaming' Her screams are still echoing in my ears,' said the distraught father.

Sitting on the bed, Razia's grandfather Ustad Asgar Hussain Khan, a shehnai player, mumbled: 'She used to sit in front of me for hours during my shehnai riyaz. I don't know whether I will be able to touch the instrument again'

Following the post-mortem ' which was waived for the victims who were minors, by a special police order ' all the bodies were taken back to the Colootola-Phears Lane area on Thursday.

From there, they were brought to the burial ground in Kidderpore.

Experts from the forensic science laboratory visited the site and collected samples to ascertain the exact cause of the fire.

State fire services minister Pratim Chatterjee visited the spot and announced a four-member inquiry committee to probe the tragedy.

'It is the worst incident that I have seen in my tenure as fire services minister,' said Chatterjee, who briefed chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee about the blaze.

Bhattacharjee said at Writers' Buildings on Thursday that there was no whiff of foul play till now.

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