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Brute blaze
- Calcutta’s longest fire leaps from market to market
- 2500 Burrabazar shops gutted, losses put at Rs 200cr

Calcutta, Jan. 12: The city’s worst fire in living memory today devoured one of Burrabazar’s biggest market hubs, leaving 2,500 shops and the future of 4,000 traders and their families in ruins.

The 1am blaze in the landmark Tirpalpatti and Nandaram complex — eastern India’s largest wholesale garment market — continued early into Sunday morning defying the efforts of 42 fire tenders aided by the army, air force and the Airports Authority of India.

There were no casualties since the shops were closed when the fire broke out in the 150-year-old Tirpalpatti buildings, burnt down seven of them and spread to the Nandaram complex where it gutted the 10-storey Kashiram block.

Traders put the losses at over Rs 200 crore in the market which takes up five per cent of the area of Calcutta’s biggest trading district.

“Everything I had was in those shops. They were my future, the future of my family. What will I do now?” wept Ganesh Bhagat, who lost his three stores on Jamunalal Bajaj Street, known as Tirpalpatti because most of its shops deal in tarpaulin.

B.D. Mimani, secretary of the local trade body, said “99 per cent” of the traders had not insured their shops and would have to rebuild their lives from scratch.

A long lull in the firefight from just past midnight on Sunday sparked tension. All the tenders together went to fill up for unexplained reasons and after their return hadn’t resumed battle even at 2.15am. No fire official was in sight and, with the flames flaring again, traders jostled with police and demanded the army take over the operation.

Earlier, the army, air force and the AAI, which answered the government’s SOS by sending five extinguishers fitted with water jets, had said fire officials were ignoring them, not even briefing them about the area’s layout.

“We had brought five containers of foam from our Alipore depot but could not use them because of lack of cooperation from fire officials,” an army officer said. “We wanted to use their ladder to spray the foam but they refused.”

The fire brigade had little choice: it had brought just one aerial ladder because two others were defunct. Firemen said it was crucial to fight a blaze from both sides and rued that this couldn’t be done.

A power cut shut the nearest pumping station of Mullickghat between 2am and 4.30am, hitting early efforts “crucially”, the fire services director said. The fire brigade’s eight-hour delay in getting its own pump, to be used on the nearby Laldighi, worsened matters, the traders said.

Poor maintenance had dried the hydrants in Kashiram. And the narrow lanes and closely spaced buildings prevented the fire tenders from approaching and spraying water from certain directions.

The cause of the fire is not known. Some traders said “sabotage” was a possibility with land sharks eyeing the area but no evidence has been found so far.

“We’ll examine the entire place once the fire is doused and the heat subsides,” said D. Sengupta, director of the state forensic laboratory.

The fire started at building No. 76 on JL Bajaj Street and spread quickly because of the inflammable nature of the stocks that included tarpaulin, garment, plastics and paint.

Residents, most of whom have shops at the Nandaram market, rushed out to see what was happening. Some returned with buckets of water to wage an impossible battle; others tried to salvage whatever they could from their shops.

“But the fire was spreading too rapidly in Tirpalpatti,” said trader Rajesh Karnwat. “Our goods burnt to ashes before our eyes.”

At the Nandaram block, owners kept busy emptying their shops through the day.

By the time the fire brigade arrived at 1.30am, fire was leaping from one building to another. Soon, the firemen realised they had a huge problem: water shortage.

With whatever water they had brought soon exhausted, the 10 fire tenders rushed to Mullickghat only to find the pumping station plunged in darkness. From there, they drove to the Wellington Square and Auckland Place reservoirs to fill up.

By the time they had returned, fire had engulfed the Kanshiram block.

The authorities sent 42 of the city’s fleet of 50 fire engines, but the firemen were spending more time travelling and filling up than in fighting the flames.

“Another aerial ladder would have allowed us to attack the flames from both sides. Now, as soon as we douse the flame on one side, it leaps up from another side,” a firefighter said.

By 10am, messages had gone out to the army, air force and the AAI. The air force sent two extinguishers and the AAI a third by 11.45am. The army weighed in with two from Panagarh by 2.30pm.

But the water shortage hamstrung them even when they had begun working on their own steam, after being reduced to spectators for a while because of the alleged non-cooperation.

“We had to wait over 15 minutes since no one was there to show us the lie of the land,” an air force officer said. He added: “Our jets are very powerful but need constant supply. The tanks were emptying every 15 minutes.”

Through the day, crowds gathered to watch, forcing the Rapid Action Force to be deployed. The police struggled to keep desperate shop owners from rushing towards their burning shops.

“I think at least Rs 200 crore has been lost,” said Mimani, secretary of the Chamber of Textile Trade and Industry, to which most of the burnt shops are affiliated. “Even the water and smoke have damaged our goods.”

“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” said Janak Bhai Kothari, who has a shop in the Kashiram block. “We have repeatedly warned the civic authorities about the fire hazard but nobody did anything.”

The warnings included 77 letters and 57 visits to the fire department by a single trader, Suresh Somani.

Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, state finance minister Asim Dasgupta, Opposition leader Mamata Banerjee and mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya visited the spot today.

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