|Smoke billows from the shanties ablaze in Topsia, behind Science City, on Friday. Picture by Amit Datta. (Below) Shakila Begum recounts neighbour Nanda Dalui’s heroic act in saving her and her three daughters. Picture by Amit Datta
Shakila Begum had given up hope — of saving herself, her three little daughters and her unborn child. Trapped in her shanty and blinded by a black cloud of smoke, she was helpless.
Neighbour Nanda Dalui proved a godsend. Drawn by the cries of the children, he smashed down the door and dragged Shakila, five months pregnant, and her daughters from the shanty to safety.
“I heard screams from the hut. Everyone was running to save their own belongings. I realised that the children would be burnt to death if I did not act. I kicked down the door. The room was like a furnace. I pulled Shakila and her kids out just in time,” said Nanda.
Shakila’s was just one of the 500-plus shanties razed in a blaze in Topsia on Friday morning, that left more than 4,000 people homeless.
The fire broke out in the congested shanty area behind Science City around 10.40am. It spread rapidly and engulfed a huge area within half an hour. A five-hour battle, with 25 fire tenders, finally brought the blaze under control.
Tempers were frayed and tension ran high as victims of the fire attacked fire-fighters and policemen, damaged several vehicles, including a fire engine, and later set up a roadblock on the EM Bypass.
Through all the anger and despair, hope and relief shone through in the eyes of Shakila. “I still can’t believe that I am alive,” she said, a few hours after her neighbour’s miraculous rescue act.
“Had it not been for Nanda, you would have found the charred bodies of me and my children. He has given us a new life,” she smiled weakly, one-year-old Sonia on her lap. Shakila’s two other daughters are Tamanna, 5, and Tahira, 3.
“My husband, a van-rickshaw puller, had left home for work early. I was sleeping when I suddenly heard my daughters crying. I then realised I couldn’t breathe properly. Black smoke had filled our room. I tried to rush to the door, but fell down,” recounted Shakila.
“The children were crying and I started screaming for help. But with flames beginning to engulf the shanty and nothing visible, I gave up hope....”
Enter, Nanda Dalui.
Though they had lost everything that Rehmat Ali had managed to earn for the family toiling as a van-rickshaw puller for years, all that mattered for Shakila was that she, her three daughters and the child she was bearing had escaped from the inferno.
“Along the canal, hundreds of houses were ablaze. I ran as far away as possible with my children,” said Shakila, with a shudder.
Shakila was not the only woman rescued from the shanties, with their infants. “We managed to save Nazima Bibi and her four-month-old son and also Hasina Khatoon with her one-year-old daughter,” said Asgar Sheikh, a local youth who helped save lives and salvage foodgrains from homes before they were gutted.