The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Alive & waiting for fire station
- Up in flames and down to ashes

Sonada, Nov. 29: The Agarawals are yet to get over last night’s shock.

Santoshi Devi (60) and Sumit Agarwal (26) had not seen any flames licking the walls, but the smoke billowing out through the wooden floor had almost asphyxiated them. By the time they realised what had happened downstairs, both the woman and her son were unconscious.

“Had it not been for our neighbours and the local people, I don’t know what would have happened to them. My mother and brother were fighting for life when they were dragged out. I was in bed and the next thing I remember was I was out on the street, shouting for help. Soon, father and I realised that they had not followed us out of the house,” recounted 30-year-old Sunita Agarawal.

The fire, which gutted four shops and two houses, seems to have started from the ground floor of Shankar Lal Agarawal’s residence. The cause is yet to be ascertained. Shankar Lal, in his early sixties, is too shocked to speak. He barely remembers having rushed out of the house with his daughter.

The family, which owns three shops on the ground floor, could save nothing. Neither could Raj Kumar, who owns the adjacent house.

Kumar was in Siliguri, 60km away, with his mother when the fire broke out. “When I rushed back, nothing was left,” said Kumar, who lives on the first floor. The ground floor housed his furniture shop.

The fire also damaged a small portion of the Darjeeling Himalayan’s Railway’s Sonada station, which is on the other side of NH55.

The fire had started at 6.45pm and it took more than three hours for fire fighters to douse the flames. Air force personnel from the Bagora air base near here had to be pressed into service. Darjeeling district magistrate Rajesh Pandey had visited the spot last night.

Residents alleged that had Sonada a fire station of its own, the houses could probably have been saved. The two fire engines each from Kurseong, Darjeeling and Bijanbari had to travel 15km, 17km and 55km respectively to reach the spot.

“The entire Sonada town stretches along the national highway. All the houses are very close to each other. So a fire in one has the chance of spreading over the entire stretch. However prompt the administration is, it cannot beat a raging fire. What we need is a fire station,” said Kumar.

GNLF leaders like Shanta Chhetri, the Kurseong MLA under whose constituency Sonada falls, and N.B. Khawash, the party’s head in the area, have admitted that the town needs a fire station.

“Sonada is growing in importance as a trade hub. Even the population has increased and there is a need to set up a fire station or even a sub-station here. Once the Assembly session starts on December 7, I will raise the issue and try to do something about it,” said Chhetri.

The importance of a sub-station can be gauged from the fact that despite a prompt action from the district official, nothing much could be done to save the houses.

“They were here — the air force and the fire personnel — within half-an-hour. But they too had to cover long distances. Nothing less than at least a substation can help,” said Khawash.

According to government norms, families whose houses have been gutted will get Rs 4,000. But Khawash said he would try and garner funds to help the victims.

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