Dawn fire kills 20 in Kolkata

Kolkata fire
Kolkata relived the horrors of the AMRI hospital and Stephen Court fires after a devastating blaze in a wholesale paper and plastic products market in the heart of the city killed at least 20 people on Wednesday.

Thick, black smoke from the pre-dawn fire swirled through two floors of a six-storey building on Surya Sen Street close to Sealdah station in central Kolkata, suffocating traders and shopworkers sleeping in the corridors lined with tens of stalls and small shops stacked high with plastic plates and cutlery, and paper and thermocol products used in weddings or festivals.

The building, which came up in 1995, was illegal, and Kolkata Municipal Corporation had demolished parts of it earlier. It had no fire-fighting equipment and only one entry and exit a staircase that was filled with smoke. Four people were rescued alive and taken to hospital. One woman was among the dead.

According to police, the Fire Brigade and area residents, the fire started at 3.20 am, probably after a refrigerator burst into flames following an electrical short-circuit. It fed on inflammable material, chemicals and over 50 cooking gas cylinders as it raced through the mezannine and first floors of the building, and burnt for about 10 hours.

The fire comes a little over a year after over 90 people mostly hospital patients suffocated following the AMRI blaze of December 2011. Earlier, in March 2010, 43 people died after a fire broke out in the 150-year-old Stephen Court building on Park Street.

Area resident Mohammed Imran said he saw smoke coming out of windows around 3.30 am. He said he tried to enter the house but failed, and could see bodies on the mezzanine floor. The police and Fire Brigade reached at 4.40 am, he said.

Police have registered a case of criminal negligence against the owners of the building, some of whom were said to be absconding. The fire and disaster management department has been asked to inquire into the cause of the fire and submit a report to the government within three days.

Fire and disaster management department minister Javed Khan blamed the previous Left Front government for the tragedy. "The building where the fire broke out was illegally constructed when the Left was in power, and most entry and exit gates were locked, resulting in people being trapped inside," he said.

The two floors which caught fire housed a total of around 80 shops, Khan said.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who visited the building and announced an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the dead and Rs 50,000 each for the injured, suggested the possibility of arson.

"Who knows, some people may have deliberately set the place on fire with an ulterior motive? We have ordered an inquiry. The KMC, fire department and police will jointly conduct the inquiry and submit a report in three days," she said.

Banerjee urged traders not to carry out businesses in illegal buildings. "There is no harm in doing business, but I won't allow business to be carried out illegally... Why did this incident happen? There are so many inflammable objects around, and if anyone lights a small fire it can turn into an inferno."

Governor M K Narayanan visited the scene of the tragedy and the NRS and Calcutta Medical College hospitals where the injured have been admitted.

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