Dawn fire kills 43 in illegal factory, Centre and Delhi govt condole deaths, blame each other

Jignasa Sinha
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Noor Jehan and her husband Mohammed Kalim at Lok Nayak Hospital in Delhi on Sunday afternoon. Noor Jehan’s father Ainul Haq and brother-in-law Mohammed Abbas were killed in the factory fire. (Express Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

An early morning fire in a five-storey residential building, which had several illegal manufacturing units running out of it, claimed the lives of 43 labourers, including at least five minors, in North Delhi’s Anaj Mandi on Rani Jhansi Road Sunday.

The Delhi Fire Service (DFS), which received a call at 5.20 am, spent the next five hours pulling out more than 60 people, most of whom were asleep at the time the fire broke out.

The building had just one narrow exit that could be used; the second exit was blocked by raw material. This, and the fact that each floor had barely any ventilation, meant the labourers, most of whom were from Bihar and Jharkhand, had little chance of escaping.

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An FIR registered by police states the factories were located illegally on residential premises. DFS director Atul Garg said the fire was possibly caused by an electrical short circuit on the second floor, and spread quickly upwards. Most of those who died were sleeping on the second and third floors of the building.

The DFS pressed 32 fire tenders and 150 firefighters into service — two firemen and two police personnel received injuries during the rescue operations.

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Outside Lok Nayak and Lady Hardinge hospitals. Hours after the fire at a factory in Anaj Mandi left 43 dead, families ran from hospital to hospital in search of their relatives. (Express Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

The building occupies 500-600 square yards in a narrow, congested lane, surrounded by houses and other manufacturing units, ostensibly also illegal. Most of these units have come up where homes once stood, and their owners likely never bothered to obtain regulatory clearances.

A DFS official said it appeared prima facie that none of the buildings in the lane had applied for no-objection certificates from the department. The area had seen two other factory fires on Saturday — one in the same lane, and the other in an adjacent one — which were doused without any loss of lives.

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The official claimed that the DFS had little enforcement power, which was the prerogative of the municipal corporations. The questions of jurisdiction and enforcement had been debated also at the time of the fire at Karol Bagh’s Hotel Arpit Palace in February this year, in which 17 people were killed.

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On Sunday too, the Centre and Delhi government pointed fingers at each other — Union Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri suggested the DFS ought to have taken action against the building owner and that the Delhi government had been sitting on a proposal for redevelopment of the area, while the AAP government underlined that it was the responsibility of the (BJP-run) North Delhi Municipal Corporation to check building plans, and accused the Minister of trying to hide the corruption in the civic body.

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At the entrance of the Anaj Mandi lane is an old arch, which made it impossible for the fire trucks to enter. “When the fire broke out, firefighters were told it was a fire inside a house. Two fire stations sent four tenders to the spot. But only one managed to get inside the lane (since it was so narrow),” Garg said.

“Since the factory was near the fire station, we reached within five minutes,” he said. The leading fireman from Prasad Nagar fire station, Sunil Kumar, was the first to arrive outside the factory, where he was forced to spend several minutes clearing the lane of food carts that had been kept there at night. “We did not face any traffic, but it was still a shame that we spent our time moving the carts,” a DFS official said.

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It was 5.45 am, some 25 minutes after the fire service got the call, that one tender was finally able to reach outside the building. “Water was one of the biggest challenges, since most tenders couldn’t enter the lane and the area doesn’t have adequate water resources. Our men joined hose pipes together to form a 900-metre chain to douse the fire,” Garg said.

The staircase was filled with smoke and the entrance was obstructed by heavy material, so the first team of five firemen had to cut through the metal grille on the upper-floor windows to get inside the building.

Mohammed Suhail, who lives nearby, said: “Around 4.50 am, I sensed smoke coming inside my room. I went out to check, and saw the factory was on fire. Men were screaming for help. There was only one staircase, and it had caught fire. It was difficult to go inside... I couldn’t see a thing in the smoke.”

By 7.20 am, firefighters had rushed five men to hospital; by 8 am, this number had risen to more than 30. “The ambulances were parked at the mouth of the lane. We picked up the injured men and carried them on our shoulders to the ambulances,” a firefighter said.

The factory is owned by a man named Rehan, DCP (North) Monika Bharadwaj said. Police have arrested Rehan and registered a case of causing death by negligence (IPC section 304A) against him. The manager of the factory, Furquan, has also been arrested.

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Rescue personnel with breathing apparatus rush to the building at Anaj Mandi Sunday. Since there were obstructions at the main entrance, they had to cut through windows on upper floors. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

The building houses a godown. On the ground floor, plastic toys were made using moulding machines. The first floor had a diary-binding unit adjacent to a cardboard storage space. The second floor, where the fire began, had a rexine bag manufacturing unit, along with a few rooms in which the labourers stayed. The third floor had two units where garments and plastic frames for mirrors were manufactured.

On the fourth floor, there were cardboard boxes used for packing. One of the building’s exits and the way to the roof were blocked by heavy materials, Fire personnel said. “We didn’t see any windows in the rooms; there were hardly one or two. Some windows had grilles, which had to be broken,” a DFS official said.

Garg said that by 9.30 am, most of the workers had been taken out of the building. Most of the deaths occurred due to the inhalation of smoke, police and firemen said. Police said three-four bodies were charred.

At 9.45 am, a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team carried out an inspection for hazardous gases using gas detectors. “Initially, four members of the CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence) team went inside to detect hazardous gases or materials.

A 37-member NDRF team followed, and found a heavy concentration of carbon monoxide throughout the building, which is possibly what killed the people. The third and fourth floors still had items that were smoldering. Most workers had been sleeping in one room, which had a single inlet for air. Personnel swept through the entire building four times,” NDRF deputy commandant Aditya Pratap Singh said.

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Some grilles had to be cut at the building in Anaj Mandi, Sunday. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

The rescue operations were declared over by 11.30 am. Assistant Divisional Officer (Old Delhi Fire Station), Rajesh Shukla, who was one of the first men on the scene, said, “Some died in their sleep, others drew their last breath in front of us. We rescued people from one corridor without realising those in the other corridor had died.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh for each of the dead from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced Rs 10 lakh each for the families.

“The fire in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi on Rani Jhansi Road is extremely horrific. My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. Wishing the injured a quick recovery. Authorities are providing all possible assistance at the site of the tragedy,” Modi posted on Twitter. Kejriwal visited the site of the tragedy, and met the survivors at Lok Nayak Hospital.