A devastating fire at a multistoreyed building here that claimed nine lives turned into the epicentre of a political slugfest on Tuesday, with the TMC government and the BJP pointing accusatory fingers at the Railways and the state administration respectively, even as the bereaved families grieved at the loss of their near ones. Preliminary findings suggested that the blaze was caused by an electrical short-circuit on the 13th floor of the New Koilaghat Building, owned by Eastern Railway (ER).
Of the nine persons who died in the inferno on Monday evening, four were fire brigade personnel, an officer, a senior technician and an RPF constable of Eastern Railway and an ASI of Kolkata Police. One body is yet to be identified. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who visited the spot at around midnight on Monday, had told reporters that there was lack of necessary assistance from the railway authorities in the firefighting operation and that senior ER officials were not present.
The ER authorities, however, said that it had extended full cooperation to the fire brigade and the police in fighting the blaze and its officers and staff guided the personnel to the affected area of the building, housing offices of ER and South Eastern Railway. In a statement, the ER said that its general manager, additional general manager and other senior officers had rushed to the spot after the fire broke out on Monday evening on the 13th floor of the sprawling building on Strand Road in the city’s central business district.
The building did not have an adequate fire fighting system, a senior official of the state fire disaster department said. President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief at the loss of lives in the fire incident.
Political barbs flew between the ruling Trinamool Congress and the opposition BJP after the incident which happened ahead of the eight-phase assembly election in the state. Criticising the TMC dispensation, BJP West Bengal co- incharge Amit Malviya in a tweet said that the state should equip local bodies with fire fighting equipment and put in place appropriate protocols.
Quipping “Pishi has failed Bengal,” Malviya tweeted, “WB needs a proactive disaster management policy, equip local bodies with fire fighting equipment and put in appropriate protocols. “It also needs a transparent and efficient fire fighting policy, with mechanism to certify buildings for fire preparedness,” he wrote.
“Pishi” is the Bengali word used for paternal aunt and the BJP refers to Mamata Banerjee as “Pishi’ as she is the aunt of TMC MP and party heavyweight Abhishek Banerjee. Countering the allegation, state Fire and Emergency Services Minister Sujit Bose said, “From installing hydraulic ladder to largely containing the blaze, our men did everything possible. It is the Railways which could not provide us with a map of the interiors of the floor.” Bose claimed that the saffron party was politicising the tragedy for “cheap electoral gains”.
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar, who visited the site on Tuesday afternoon, called for technological upgradation of the city’s fire brigade. “There is a need for modernisation of fire and municipal services in Kolkata, which is a major city of the country and the world and fire fighting set up should be technologically upgraded in keeping with the times and requirement,” he said.
The nine people had used lifts which is prohibited in case of a fire in a building, Dhankhar said adding that they gave their lives in a bid to save others from the raging fire. Charred bodies of seven people were recovered from inside a lift on Monday night while badly burnt bodies of two others were found from another on early Tuesday.
The fire department official said that the seven people used one of the four lifts in the building as a ‘fire lift’ to reach the 10th floor to quickly move near the spot where the fire broke out. But by mistake, they reached the 13th floor which was burning and they died. A fire lift, unlike a normal passenger lift, is designed to operate so long as is practicable when there is a fire in parts of the building beyond the confines of its shaft, as it is used to transport firefighters and their equipment to a floor of their choice.
The governor said that after a devastating blaze at Park Street in 2010 in which many people lost their lives, technological upgradation of the city’s fire services was required. Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed sadness at the loss of lives due to the fire tragedy and approved an ex- gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the next of kin of those who lost their lives in the incident and Rs 50,000 to the seriously injured persons.
President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted, “Pained beyond words by the extremely tragic fire accident at a building in Kolkata. My deep sympathy and condolences for the bereaved families. I wish for speedy recovery of the injured.” The chief minister also announced that the state government will pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the family members of the deceased and a government job to the kin of each victim. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said that all possible assistance has been provided to the state government during this “unfortunate” incident.
He also set up a high-level committee to ascertain the cause of the fire. Meanwhile, family members of the deceased persons felt it hard to come to terms with their loss.
Among the dead was Amit Bhawal, assistant sub- inspector of the Hare Street police station, who had rushed to the spot in the line of duty. “I tried to contact him after hearing the news of the fire in New Koilaghat building as the area falls under the jurisdiction of Hare Street police station. But his mobile phone was not reachable. I felt anxious but I couldn’t imagine he would not return,” his widow said.
The son of Eastern Railway officer Parthasarathi Mondal had even approached Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee when she visited the spot on Monday night to help get news of his missing father. His body was later recovered from the 13th floor.
Breaking down, he said that Mondal was very popular among his colleagues and had perhaps wanted to be on their side after coming to know about the fire breaking out. Ramesh, the brother of RPF jawan Sanjay Sahani, said there was no news about his sibling till Tuesday morning.
“Today, I was asked to come to SSKM Hospital to identify his body. He used to stay with a friend at a place in Kolkata,” said the man, weeping. The police registered a suo motu case in connection with the incident.