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43 perish in Delhi’s second deadliest blaze

New Delhi: At least 43 people were killed when a massive fire ripped through a four-storey building housing illegal manufacturing units in north Delhi’s congested Anaj Mandi area on Sunday morning, in the second deadliest blaze in the national capital.

Almost all the deceased were migrant labourers hailing from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Police and fire department officials said many of the fatalities occurred due to suffocation, as the people were sleeping when the fire started around 5 am on the second floor of the building that did not have fire safety clearance and was packed with combustible material like cardboards.

It took over 150 firefighters nearly five hours to douse the blaze. As many as 63 people were pulled out of the building. While 43, including one minor, died, 16 were injured. Two fire department personnel were hurt while carrying out rescue work, officials said.

Those awakened by the fire, suspected by officials to have been triggered by short-circuit, had to struggle to escape, as the exit routes were partially blocked and several windows were found sealed.

Police have arrested the property owner Rehan and his manager Furkan and a case has been registered under Sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 285 (negligent conduct with respect to fire) of the IPC. The case has been transferred to the Crime Branch.

The Delhi government ordered a magisterial probe into the tragedy, the worst fire accident in the national capital since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze that claimed 59 lives, and sought a report within seven days.

Officials said 35 fire tenders were rushed after the blaze was reported at 5.22 am in the Anaj Mandi building, which housed manufacturing units for glass items, cardboards, handbags and other goods. The building was packed with cardboards, plastic wrappings, garments, rexine, plastic toys and packaging items, aggravating the fire and resulting in dense smoke which suffocated the people trapped inside, they said.

Firoz Khan, 32, who worked in a cap manufacturing unit on the third floor and escaped unhurt, said the fire appeared to have started on the second floor and he could flee after alerting others, as he was sleeping near a door. “When I got up, I saw flames engulfing the room in which we were sleeping. The door was about six metres away from me and I alerted other workers sleeping near me,” he said. “Four-five of us rushed out through the door. Many sleeping away from the door were trapped. I don’t know if they are alive,” he said.

The injured included two minors. However, it was not confirmed whether they worked in the units.

The narrow lanes of Anaj Mandi area made rescue operations difficult for firefighters, who had to cut window grills to get access to the building. Some injured were carried to the hospital in auto rickshaws.

A preliminary probe suggested that short-circuit triggered the blaze. Power discom BYPL said the fire began due to “internal system” trouble.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and others condoled the loss of lives. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said it was a “very, very tragic” incident and an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh each will be given to the next of kin of those killed and Rs 1 lakh to the injured.

Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the families of the deceased.

The Prime Minister approved Rs 50,000 each for those seriously injured. The amount will be paid from the Prime Minister National Relief Fund, the PMO said in a tweet.

North Delhi Mayor Avtar Singh said he has asked the municipal commissioner to form a team to probe the exact cause of the fire.

In February this year, a blaze at hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh left 17 dead, bringing under scanner implementation of fire safety rules in the city.

Official sources claimed civic authorities had last week “surveyed” the Anaj Mandi building but the upper floors were found to be locked due to which the entire structure could not be inspected. Officials were to visit the building again to survey the upper floors and accordingly issue a show-cause notice, they said.

Chaotic scenes were witnessed at the site, clogged with bystanders and politicians arriving in convoys. Firemen made their way through narrow lanes to rescue those trapped inside the blackened building and carried many unconscious labourers on their backs. As the building lacked proper ventilation, most of the people died due to asphyxia.

Aditya Pratap Singh, deputy commander of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), said they detected carbon monoxide (CO) in the building. “The entire third and fourth floors were engulfed with smoke. The content of CO was more,” he said. He said when the team started the operation, it found some windows sealed.

The dead and injured were taken to LNJP, Lady Hardinge and RML hospitals, where distraught people had a hard time finding their family members. Some recalled the heart-wrenching last phone calls made by their loved ones.

Nafees (58), who lost his two sons in the tragedy, said they had come to Delhi from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh six years ago. They operated a carry bag-manufacturing unit on the second floor in which around 25 people were employed.

“I got a call from Imran (35), my elder son, who said ‘Abbu, a massive fire has erupted in the building. I won’t be able to come out alive. Please save me,’” Nafees said with a lump in his throat. “I asked him to call the fire brigade and the call ended soon after. He didn’t pick up my calls again,” he said.

An elderly man, whose three nephews worked at the building, said, “At least 12-15 machines were installed in the unit. I have no idea about the factory owner. My nephews Mohammed Imran and Ikramuddin were inside the factory. I don’t know their whereabouts.” Imran and Ikramuddin were later found to be among the 43 dead.

Thirty-four people were brought dead to LNJP hospital and smoke inhalation was the primary cause of death. Some of the bodies were charred, Dr Kishore Singh, Medical Superintendent, LNJP, said. Nine people were brought dead to Lady Hardinge hospital.

Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues Imran Hussain and Satyendra Jain visited the site besides Union ministers Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur and Harsh Vardhan, and BJP MPs Manoj Tiwari and Vijay Goel.

An intense political blame game erupted over the incident, with the BJP holding the Kejriwal government responsible for the incident and the AAP alleging that the saffron party was doing politics over dead bodies.

The Congress found fault with both the BJP, which is power in all three municipal corporations here, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Overhead wires were dangling in the area and despite repeated complaints in this regard, government agencies did not take any action, claimed Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari.

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