Mohammed Sonu, 16, woke up gasping for air on Sunday morning. Dense smoke had filled the small room that he shared with four others in a building in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi.
Everywhere around him men were screaming and beseeching for help through the grilled windows. According to officials, the fire, which went onto claim 43 lives, was triggered by a short circuit on the fourth floor of the building that was being used as a plastic factory.
A resident of Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, Sonu was visiting his brother Mohammed Dulari who had been working at one of the illegal manufacturing units inside the building.
“I woke up and saw everyone screaming bachao bachao (save us, save us),” he said from the emergency ward of Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. “They screamed till they fell unconscious. There were many people. The fire started near the gate and reached till the end of the room,” he recalled.
Meanwhile, in a neighbouring house, 45-year-old Mohammed Arif was woken up by the cries for help. “It must have been sometime between 4.45 and 5.15am. I climbed to my terrace from where I saw three to five people inside.”
Arif and 10 other people, who had gathered on the rooftop, hastily started making a makeshift bridge using wooden ladders and ropes in the hope to help those stuck inside. The National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) rescuers, who had arrived at the scene by this time, were attempting to reach inside using the makeshift bridge.
“The NDRF rescuers first used a cutter but after the grills didn’t give way, they used an angle grinder to cut through. Two people were rescued and were taken to the hospital,” Arif said.
The fire tenders that had been pressed into service after being alerted by a call from one of the residents around 5.20am was still finding it difficult to reach the factory because of the narrow streets.
“The firemen came late with the water. It must have taken them 15 to 20 minutes. It took them till 8-8.30am to put out the fire, but the smoke was still wafting out,” Aqeel Rehman told News18 as he pointed to the window through which the firemen and rescuers had gained access into the building.
Nearly 150 fire personnel carried out the rescue, pulling out 63 people from inside the blackened building.
Arshad Sheikh, a 19-year-old student at Delhi University, rushed to the street where the incident was unfolding after being woken up by his sister. NDRF rescuers and fire officials were then carrying two men through the window on the third floor.
“I gave one of them water. One of the men was screaming — ‘I just got married a year ago, please save me’. He, however, passed away right before reaching the ambulance,” Arshad said. He continued with a shaken voice, “I will never forget what I saw in my entire life. It has left me traumatised.”
So far, the Delhi police have arrested the building's owner identified as Rehan and his manager Furkan. According to officials of the Delhi Fire Service, the building did not have a fire safety clearance and even lacked safety equipment.
This is the second most severe fire incident that the national capital has witnessed after the Uphaar Cinema Tragedy in 1997. The massive fire had claimed 59 lives and left over 100 injured. Earlier this year, a fire at Hotel Arpit Palace in Central Delhi's Karol Bagh had killed at least 17 people. The incident had also been spurred by lapses in safety.