Around 3.30am on Saturday, as the fire started raging in the Sara-Sahara Complex, 20-year-old Junaid Shaikh and his friends jumped into action. Their quick response ensured that four residential buildings, which house 250 families and 50 shops, were unharmed by the fire that raged for 12 hours and gutted around 1,000-odd shops.
Realising that the fire was perilously close to their homes in Al Qadri chawl, Junaid and his group of 15 friends started asking all residents for keys to their homes. "Every home had a gas cylinder and if the fire was to come closer, the chawl would blow up. So we started entering all homes on the side of the fire and took every gas cylinder out," Junaid said.
The youngsters claim the fire brigade came after 4.15am, 45 minutes after they were called for - a claim the fire department rubbishes.
Even as officials battled the fire, it spread. "Officials were standing at a distance and spraying water. But that was not enough and three houses in our chawl caught fire," said Sajid Shaikh, 29.
Sajid then climbed the tarpaulin-roofed rooms of the chawl and reached the roof of the top-most house, about three storeys high. "I asked the firemen to hand me a hosepipe and started spraying water on the rooms that had caught fire," he said.
"They were unfamiliar with the place so we thought we should help them out," he added.
Around 15 youngsters joined in. "Some of us handled the hosepipes, while others broke open the roof of one room on fire and took the cylinder and stove out from the roof as we had not been able to do it earlier," Sajid said.
The youngsters continued helping for the next four hours.
Atiya Parveen Shaikh, an activist, said: "If Al Qadri chawl had caught fire, it would have spread to the neighbouring four buildings. Due to their presence of mind, they saved the lives and properties of hundreds of families."
Junaid admits they had no such grand plans. "We just wanted to ensure that no house in our chawl catches fire. Only later did we realise the scale of the fire."