Four firefighters were killed after a four-floor building of the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT) near old KC Theatre in Sector 17-B collapsed following a major fire that triggered a chain of gas cylinder blasts in the basement air-conditioning plant on Sunday.
Smoke coming out after the fire broke in the four-floor NIELIT building at Sector 17 in Chandigarh on Sunday. Keshav Singh/HT
One of the identified victims, Amandeep Singh (28) of Malout in Punjab, was posted at the Sector-11 fire station. In the MC service since 2007, he was engaged last week and was to marry in September.
Another victim, Ravinder Singh, is reported to be a fire-fighter from the air force. These were the two bodies recovered.
Another MC fireman, Jitender, who was moved to the PGI, is in a critical condition. "Department ne hame kuch nahi diya, balki aaj aag me jhok diya (the department gave us anything, but today it threw us into fire)," said one of the MC firemen on the condition of anonymity.
Later in the evening, the army was called and the entire rescue operation carried out in the dark as there was no electricity and even the streetlights were not functioning.
The firemen who tried to get into the building were ill equipped. Firefighting was on till the filling of the report around 11.30pm.
The fire started from the basement around 4.15pm and spread to the other floors, destroying equipment and key data of the Punjab government, Chandigarh administration and municipal corporation (MC). However, there is no immediate word on whether or not there was any backup of the data.
Around 4.50pm, 20 fire tenders from Chandigarh, SAS Nagar and Panchkula, including one each from the Chandigarh air force station and Chandimadir Cantonment, moved to the spot (SCO 114-116) but failed to douse the flames. Meanwhile, municipal commissioner and officiating deputy commissioner Vivek Pratap Singh, UT adviser KK Sharma, inspector general of police RP Upadhyaya and senior superintendent of police Sukhchain Singh reached the spot.
The poor coordination among various departments also came to the fore, as senior officers from the UT administration and the MC reached the spot only around 9.20pm, a good four hours after the fire broke out. Nearly 250 volunteers, including 50 women from Dera Sacha Sauda, helped the rescue operation.
Fire officer Madan Lal Sharma said the fire broke out in the basement where the renovation of the air-conditioning plant was on. It spread to the floors where the firemen found no access. On the one hand, the locked doors posed a problem, and on the other hand, there were trees cramming space for setting up hydraulic ladder. "Controlling the inferno proved a challenge as paper caught fire and cylinders exploded, intensifying the blaze," Sharma added.
MC fire dept exposed
The incident has exposed the lack of safety equipment in the fire department, as firemen had only handkerchiefs instead of oxygen masks to cover the nose before heading into the smoke. Belying all the department claims, even the rescue operation was far from satisfactory. Had the official shown quick response, the fire could have been controlled before it became devastating.
The fire spread in two hours, in the presence of fire officials. Even the hydraulic ladder arrived after more than two hours. City lawyer Ajay Jagga, a witness to the incident, said: "The MC's fire brigade failed to perform its statutory duty of saving property. Flames spread because of its inefficiency."
NIELIT generates water, power bills
The NIELIT, an autonomous scientific society of the government of India department of electronics and information technology, processes government data for various utilities. Its major works include generating water and power bills of Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana, and collecting property tax (commercial). It recently also started digitising data for the recruitment of sweepers in the MC.
Major problem ahead
The affected offices do not have data backup, so it will be a major problem for many government departments, including the UT administration and the MC. Even if the data were maintained manually, it would have taken months to streamline the system.
March 26, 2014: Infosys Technologies at IT Park, Chandigarh. No casualty reported
March 17, 2013: Room 702 on the seventh floor of Punjab Civil Secretariat, Sector 9; documents of agriculture, animal husbandry, forest departments and mandi board destroyed
Jan 22, 2013: Tailor, 52, charred on first floor of an SCO in Sector 17.