The Telegraph
Thursday , February 28 , 2013
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19 lives and an all-party mask

Calcutta, Feb. 27: A pre-dawn fire in a market complex near Sealdah station killed at least 19 people who were sleeping inside and set in motion a cycle of events sickeningly familiar to the city.

The victims were either porters or shop hands who had taken shelter at night at Hiralal Market Complex near Sealdah station. One victim was as young as 17 and the oldest 80.

The way so many lives were lost brought to light lacunae at every step of the way and the lessons not learnt after the disasters at AMRI Hospitals, Dhakuria, Stephen Court and Nandram Market.

All the dead were on the mezzanine floor, which turned out to be illegal, though the five-storey building itself was ensconced in a shell of legality. Firefighters could not enter the floor because there were no building plans — a telltale symptom of unauthorised additions. A scorching light was shone on such illegality when the Nandram fire raged for 100 hours in 2008.

Wednesday’s victims had little opportunity to escape after the lone exit was engulfed by fire and smoke. At Stephen Court in 2010, a locked door to the terrace proved fatal for many.

A rag-picker, not a fire alarm, sounded the first warning around 3.30am today. At AMRI Hospitals in 2011, the absence of a warning system was blamed for several deaths.

A medicine wholesaler today alleged that firefighters took time to respond and at least one fire engine turned up without water and had to return to fill itself up. Few Calcuttans would say they are hearing such complaints for the first time.

Politicians of all hues competed with each other to discover “illegalities”. The chorus appeared as choreographed as the undeclared unanimity among all parties to look the other way, if not actively condone, when building rules are violated across the city.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, too, hinted at the “illegal” nature of the building and ordered a “high-level” probe into the fire. Every time Calcutta has had a fire, there has been a high-level probe though little has come of them.

As recently as January, when The Telegraph caught on tape fixers using Trinamul party offices and a corporation office to strike deals to facilitate illegal construction, the political leadership sought refuge in technicalities and did little.

Today, mayor Sovan Chatterjee was among the first to declare the Hiralal Market Complex “illegal”.

Fire minister Javed Khan, whose department is supposed to enforce safety norms, said: “Calcutta is a 300-year-old city with lakhs of buildings. It is difficult to locate such buildings. But now we will take action against the owners of the building.”

Moyna Bibi, the rag-picker who starts out early, said she was standing across the road when she noticed the fire at “Surya Sen Market” (the affected floors are called so though a better-known namesake exists nearby).

The blaze spread from the ground floor, lined with around 50 shops and godowns, to the mezzanine floor. A few plastic goods godowns and even a tax consultancy firm had found room on the mezzanine floor.

Nineteen bodies were found on the mezzanine floor, a maze with passages no more than 3ft wide.

The rescue operation on the mezzanine floor could not start before 6am, sources said. “It was impossible to work in the smoke. We did not have the building’s plan and were clueless about how to enter the mezzanine floor. Only one small staircase joins the ground floor to the mezzanine floor,” said a fire fighter.

Sumit Sarkar, whose veterinary medicine wholesale shop on the first floor was gutted, alleged delay by the fire department. Fire officials said they received a call at 3.50am and rushed to the spot “as early as possible”. Twenty-six fire tenders were deployed.

“I found my mother near the staircase,” said Biswajit Saha, son of Jyotsna Rani Saha, 80, the lone woman who died in the fire. The lady used to sleep on the mezzanine floor to maintain occupancy over a small shop.

A case has been started against Sailen Saha, Ratan Saha, Manik Saha, all owners of the commercial complex, and Debasish Banerjee, the manager. The charges include culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The Sahas, who own a guesthouse on the first floor, are absconding, the police said.