Sari shops Traders Assembly and Adi Dhakeswari Bastralaya were gutted with their warehouses in the peak wedding season when fire broke out early on Sunday at the landmark five-storey building that houses them at Gariahat junction.
The 12.45am blaze, which raged more than 10 hours, destroyed or damaged a third of the 25-odd shops the building accommodates and forced the 40 resident families to rush down the stairs and spend the winter night on the street.
At least two flats in the 80-year-old building, 161/A & B Rashbehari Avenue, were severely damaged. A Class XII student who will write her board exams next month lost some of her books.
There were no human casualties but three caged budgerigars in one of the flats died, probably of suffocation.
Authorities suspect that the fire started from the hawkers’ stalls on the pavement below and spread to the building’s upper floors, like the Bagree Market inferno of September 16 in central Calcutta that raged 85 hours. Several of the hawkers’ stalls were destroyed, too.
Forensic officials who visited the site said the loose ends of the stalls’ electrical wiring may have triggered a short-circuit, causing the stalls’ tarpaulin coverings to catch fire.
Rathin Samajpati, a doctor who lives on the first floor, said he saw flames leaping out of the hawkers’ stalls when he went down to check after his daughter alerted him about a burning smell. “The tarpaulin sheets are a hazard. We have complained to the police, municipal authorities, the councillor, the fire brigade, but nothing was done,” he said.
The fire brigade said it had received a call at 1.05am. The 20 fire tenders deployed doused the flames by 11.15am.
Traders Assembly and Adi Dhakeswari suffered losses running into crores, according to employees and an owner of a shop. Among the other shops gutted were the ground-floor jewellers Ratna Kuber and three hosiery stores.
Ratan Kumar Saha, one of the owners of Traders Assembly, said the shop had received many advance bookings, this being the peak wedding season. “We have several such bookings for expensive saris. I’m at a loss what to do,” he said.
Saris recovered from the Adi Dhakeswari Bastralaya store by employees and heaped on the road in Gariahat. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
A fire official said that barring a few extinguishers, the building seemed to lack safety measures like fire alarms or fire escapes.
The fire-fighters struggled to enter the upper floors because of a collapsed staircase, and had to make holes in the wall to be able to spray water after failing to break open the grille gates protecting a shop door. “I have asked the fire brigade to see if the shops had licences (fire certificates) or water sprinklers,” said mayor Firhad Hakim.
Ratan Saha said: “Installing new-age fire-fighting equipment is difficult in old buildings.”
Sanjoy Saha, the owner of Adi Dhakeswari, refused comment. Prasenjit Kundu Chowdhury, whose father Prabir is one of the owners of the building, said it was named Gurudas Mansion after construction.
The quadrangular building with a large courtyard in the middle has three exits: two on Rashbehari Avenue and one on Gariahat Road. The Rashbehari side of the building was the worst affected, fire officials said.
Suman Ghosh, a lawyer who has a flat on the first floor, said: “My bedroom and another room are gutted.”
Power supply to the building, snapped after the fire broke out, will be restored after the fire brigade, police and the civic body give “clearances”, the CESC said.
A stretch of Rashbehari Avenue just west of the Gariahat crossing was closed to traffic for several hours. Even in the afternoon, the flank for eastward traffic was closed.
Hakim said the civic body would clean the burnt portions of the building after the forensic experts wrap up their investigation.