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Fire struck on the 15th and 16th floors of Chatterjee International, one of the oldest highrises in the city’s business district, on Tuesday just before the beginning of full fledged office hours, sending panic waves across the city that was ravaged by devastating fires in the past few years including the ones at AMRI hospital and Stephen Court.
The fire started around 8:30 on the 15th floor and spread to the 16th. It raged for over three hours before it was brought under control by 17 fire engines.
Parts of the 14th and 17th floors were also damaged.
“The floors have fire extinguishers, sprinklers and fire alarm. But since they are not operated, they do not work,” alleged Firoj Akhtar, an employee of an office on the 21st floor.
Fortunately, there were no casualties, an escape described as providential by some who has offices in that building. Electricity connections in the entire 24 storied building and adjoining office buildings were snapped soon after the fire spotted.
Four persons, who were on 21st floor, got choked by the smoke. They were rushed to the nearby SSKM Hospital but were later released after preliminary treatment. However, one firemen was injured while dousing the fire.
“I was stuck on the 21st floor of the building. Fire engulfed the entire floor. I waved with a piece of cloth through the window to draw attention. Later, I was rescued by the fire service officials,” said Akhtar, one of the four people trapped inside the building.
The building was completed in 1976 and has 24 floors, all occupied by office and business establishments.
“We don’t know what caused the fire. We will only know after the probe in over,” said fire services minister Javed Khan. However, the word spread at the spot that kerosene and cooking stoves that contain highly inflammable material might have been present at the spot.
Incidentally, Stephen Court that was engulfed by a massive fire on March 24, 2010 killing 43, is less than a km from the spot.
“The fire can be partially attributed to the sheer negligence of fire officials. I saw sparks in the AC machine in my office, I alerted the firemen. But they were busy battling the fire on the 15th,” said Prem Kanoria, who owns an office on the 16th floor.
Kanoria’s office was completely gutted. “I saw the fire on the TV and came rushing. But I had to helplessly watch it being engulfed by the fire,” rued Kanoria.
Apart from the fire engines, two sky lifts and four ladders were deployed at the spot.
But lack of planning and coordination became evident again on Tuesday. A 40-metre skylift reached the spot an hour after the fire was noticed. But it could not reach the 15th floor where the fire had broken out.
Then a 70-metre skylift was rushed to bring out those trapped on that floor. But it was a good two hours after the fire.
Firemen were seen struggling with the taller apparatus, a clear indication that they were not fully familiar with the operation.
The fire services minister, Javed Khan, mayor Sovan Chatterjee, housing development minister Arup Biswas rushed to the spot. Ritesh Tiwari, who is contesting the Chowringhee assembly bypoll for BJP, also came in the morning.
“Why couldn’t the state government act within 15 minutes of the fire breaking out? The fire station is close to the spot,” said Tiwari.
“I went to the 15th and 16th floor. The fire was completely under control by then,” said Javed Khan around midday.