The shuttered entrance to the five-storey building. (Express Photo)
When the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) received a call at 5.22 am Sunday, a team from a fire station less than 100 metres away from the spot rushed to house number 8273, Anaj Mandi, in North Delhi. Four fire tenders were deployed and since the address was of a residential area, firefighters were under the impression that it was a blaze at a house.
“We immediately received a call from a firefighter about the need for more tenders and men as it was a factory, with several people trapped inside. In all, 32 fire tenders and over 150 firefighters were dispatched,” said DFS director Atul Garg.
A total of 43 people, including at least five minors, who were working inside several tiny units that existed in the five-storey building, died.
“It was a medium-category fire and dousing it was not a challenge; it was the rescue that was a task. Our priority was to rescue as many people as we could first... so a team of five firefighters entered the building with their breathing apparatus sets even though the fire was raging inside,” Garg said.
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Visibility was low as smoke engulfed the factory; the boots of firefighters brushed against unconscious men on the upper floors; and the firemen encountered an obstructed exit. Even as the firefighters did the four-hour rescue operation, their breathing apparatus sets ran out every 20 minutes and had to be refilled regularly. In all, DFS pulled out 63 people from the building, of whom 43 died.
An operator from Rani Jhansi Road fire station managed to speak to some workers outside the building who were in contact with trapped workers over the phone.
The rescue operation began with DFS officers accessing the building from the windows in the rear. “Entering the building from the front was tricky as the staircase was filled with smoke and reaching the top floors would have taken more time. We accessed the building from the rear by cutting iron grilles of windows... most people were rescued from there. We also used the front entrance later but most of the rescue was done from the rear end,” said Garg.
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On each floor, firefighters came across 15-20 people, most unconscious. The narrow, cramped lane made it impossible for fire tenders to enter, so a mini water tender was sent.
The boots of firefighters brushed against unconscious men on the upper floors; and the firemen encountered an obstructed exit.(Express photo: Praveen Khanna)
As the smoke cleared, three charred bodies were found huddled together in a room by Assistant Divisional Officer (Old Delhi fire station) Rajesh Shukla. Thirty unconscious workers were found in a single room. The first and second floors were cleared, and Shukla managed to get 12 workers out when his breathing apparatus set ran out. “It has a maximum capacity of 30 minutes but was not enough for such a big rescue operation,” Shukla said.
The firefighters dragged the unconscious men found on the upper floors as the uneven surface was a risk for the firefighters. “We also had to save up on our strength and could not lift all of them. Many of us started suffocating as well.
There was only one ambulance which could make it to the main entrance at that time,” a fire operator said. At least two firefighters were admitted to the hospital — one complained of breathing problems, the other of a leg injury.