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Thursday , March 25 , 2010
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Stephen Court burns, Pratim learns
- Minister says fire has taught him skylift should be kept closer
Pratim Chatterjee
Bengal Fire Minister

Calcutta, March 24: Little proof exists that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. But Pratim Chatterjee did cram lessons for the future while many were burnt alive in Stephen Court.

“… From this incident, I have learnt a lesson: ladders should be kept in and around Esplanade to speed up the process of firefighting,” Bengal’s fire minister said today.

The minister flaunted another lesson: carpets cannot save people forced to jump from highrises. So, the government is “planning” to purchase nets. “Right now, we have carpets but those cannot save a man from getting injuries,” he said.

The irony must have missed Chatterjee, probably the country’s only official fire minister.

It took a tragedy whose magnitude is still unfolding, not 14 years at the helm of a department carved out to accommodate him, to teach Chatterjee the very basic in common sense: you can’t keep skylifts in Salt Lake and Behala and hope to rescue people in the heart of Calcutta that has many highrises.

The bright student in Chatterjee is certain to jump up with a correction: there indeed was a skylift close by at Free School Street. But the devil lies in the detail: it was out of order. (See Metro)

The two serviceable lifts that could have saved lives in Stephen Court are kept in Salt Lake and Behala, presumably because Chatterjee did not want to add to the congestion in the city centre, never mind both sites are way out of reach for the central business district during an emergency.

Yesterday, the skylift took almost an hour and a half to reach Park Street from Salt Lake and Behala. Besides the callousness of public representatives, few inventions in the world are known to withstand the destructive power of a raging fire for so long.

Chatterjee, who till late last night had swatted away charges of delay in launching a full fledged fire-fighting operation at 18A Stephen Court, tried his best to wear a mellower mask today. “The fire was a big incident and as fire minister, I am sorry that it happened. But this is not the time to judge who was in the wrong or due to whose negligence it happened. As fire minister for 14 years, I have not witnessed such an incident.”

“There was certainly a delay in ladder deployment, which had to be brought from Sector V in Salt Lake. If the ladders were centrally located, it would have taken much less time to reach Park Street and that could have saved a few more lives,” Chatterjee said.

The minister said his department was exploring options to relocate the skylifts — a key tool in battling fires in highrises — at its Free School Street headquarters or the Kankurgachhi fire station.

Later in the day, home secretary Ardhendu Sen said that city police commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti had been asked to find out whether the ladders could be kept somewhere in the Maidan area.

Chatterjee may have climbed down from his high ladder but he is sticking to the rest of his scorecard. “There was no delay in starting the fire operations. Within 10 minutes, 14 fire tenders had reached the spot,” Chatterjee said.

Asked who should be held responsible for the fire, he said: “It is the responsibility of the corporation to ensure that no houses are in a hazardous state. There are at least 200 houses marked as hazardous in the city.”

It is not clear how Chatterjee’s Left Front ally and Calcutta mayor Bikash Rajan Bhattacharyya will react to the fire minister’s same-side goal.

Captain Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee also will do well to keep a wary eye on his team-mate. Asked who should look into the state of hazardous houses, Chatterjee shot back: “Who will be responsible? Ask the chief minister. My duty is to look after the firefighting arrangements.”

According to the fire minister, he spoke to Bhattacharjee — who made a halt at the fire site while on his way to the Writers’ Buildings this morning — and briefed him about the 10-hour-plus firefighting operation.

“The chief minister is feeling sorry for the incident. I am also grieved at the death of so many people. I have requested him to set up a high-powered committee to inquire into the incident,” said Chatterjee.

Railway minister Mamata Banerjee, who had visited the site yesterday, today blamed the government for its “sheer callousness”. “Why did the ladders not arrive in time?” she asked.

Her MLAs had the chance to ask Chatterjee that question in the Assembly today but they trooped out as soon as the fire minister entered.

Although the exact cause of the fire was not known till this evening, Gopal Bhattacharya, director, fire services, blamed the lift-shaft and the wooden staircase for the fire. “Our preliminary findings suggest that the fire started at the liftshaft and then spread to the lift machine and from there to the wooden staircase before spreading across the floors,” he said.

“Some parts of the building are unsafe and we plan to start pulling down these portions from Thursday,” said Debasish Kar, director-general-II of the civic building department.

According to fire department officials, the iron beams holding the top two floors were posing danger to the building. “Excess heat, over 1,500 degrees Centigrade, caused damage to the beams, reducing their load-bearing capacity. This will not only affect the two floors, but the entire building,” said an official.

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