Nineteen people, including a woman, were killed and more than 20 injured in a massive fire that engulfed the Surya Sen Market in southeastern Kolkata's Sealdah area in the wee hours of Wednesday, bringing back memories of the AMRI Hospital fire that claimed 93 lives in December 2011.
Wednesday's fire broke out in the six-storey market around 3am when most of the victims, who worked and lived there, were asleep.
Preliminary investigations revealed that the fire was caused by a short circuit on the ground floor and spread to the first floor, engulfing scores of shops and godowns. It took 26 fire tenders several hours to control the blaze.
The building, which lacks enough exits and proper fire safety devices, was disputed after its owner died a few years ago.
Taking advantage of the situation, traders set up a vegetable and fish market on the ground floor while several others opened groceries, eateries, offices and smaller units containing plastic and thermocol items on the ground and first floors.
More than 50 people, who worked in the units, lived in the building as well.
Locals complained that fire engines took almost 40 minutes to reach the spot.
"Had they arrived in time, a lot of lives would have been saved," said Radharam Sarkar, who lives near the ravaged structure.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, while blaming illegal constructions in the area for the mishap, announced a compensation of Rs. 2 lakh for the families of the deceased and Rs. 50,000 for the injured.
She met families of the dead and injured at Calcutta Medical College and Hospital where most of the dead bodies were sent for post mortem examination and injured admitted.
"The tragic incident occurred due to unplanned constructions in the area. There are no proper exit points in most of the older constructions. We would give Rs. 2 lakh each as compensation to the families of the deceased and Rs. 50,000 each to the injured, besides providing for their treatment. I have asked the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and police and fire departments to conduct a high level inquiry and submit me the report within three days," Banerjee said.
It is learnt that the building belonged to one Nakul Saha who died a few years back. Since then, the structure has been disputed, taking advantage of which a vegetable and fish market came up on the ground floor.
There are a number of groceries, eateries, offices and scores of smaller units containing plastic and theromocol items on the ground and first floors.
"After the AMRI incident, we instructed all structures to ensure proper fire safety arrangements. But that was not followed. I have instructed the KMC to survey all illegal constructions in the city within three months. We cannot allow people to do business, reside and cook at the same place," Banerjee said.
Firefighters climb up a narrow alley as they attempt to control a blaze in the Surya Sen market building. AFP
Fire service minister Javed Khan blamed the Left regime for the tragedy.
"This market complex was constructed during the Left rule. It was unauthorised and illegal and did not follow any fire safety norms. How did the then government allow it to come up? We will take action against the market authorities for not following fire safety norms," Khan said.
"This is not the time for political blamegame. What is required is proper treatment of the injured and an enquiry into the incident," opposition leader Suryakanta Mishra said.