Congested lanes, faulty stairs slowed rescue in Zakir Nagar fire
On Tuesday afternoon, a senior officer at the local Jamia Nagar police station checked the records for the past few months to see how frequent was calls of fire in electric wires in his area. “On an average, there were at least two such calls every day,” the officer said.
Six people were killed and at least 14 others were injured when a fire, triggered by a short-circuit ravaged a four-storey building in the congested Zakir Nagar — the third major fire incident reported in the congested area since March.
On March 26, two minor cousins, aged 6 and 7 years, were killed when a fire broke out in a flat in the nearby Abul Fazal Enclave. Another blaze on June 19, that saw the fire fighters dramatically rescue seven people by placing ladders across two buildings, was quite similar to the latest blaze. In both the cases, the fire began in the electricity meter boards installed in the stilt parking and gutted several vehicles before the fire spread through the buildings.
Civic and fire officials say most unauthorised colonies with their narrow streets, haphazard building layouts and little attention to safety make them sitting ducks when a disaster strikes. Zakir Nagar, like most Okhla colonies, is full of builder flats where multiple housing units have been built on plots which were meant for single houses. Even though stilt parking is left on the ground floor, often residents leave their vehicles on the road, squeezing further the space for the movement of other vehicles. Building plans are rarely approved and quality of construction is often patchy.
“The already narrow streets in these neighbourhoods turn even more inaccessible for fire tenders when vehicles are parked at night,” said Atul Garg, chief fire officer, Delhi Fire Services.
On Tuesday, residents of Zakir Nagar blamed the fire fighters of arriving at the spot nearly an hour late. “Had we received help from the fire department in time, no lives would have been lost,” said Shoaib Danish, the local councillor.
Garg, however, said that the first fire tenders had arrived within 10 minutes of the call. “The others arrived from different fire stations, so they weren’t aware of the route,” said Garg.
A senior police officer said they had to guide the fire tenders to reach the fire spot. While one small fire tender reached the spot soon, others couldn’t find their way, the officer said. “When they sought our help, we asked them to take the route along the Yamuna Pushta. They didn’t know about such a route, so we personally guided them,” the officer said. Since most of the development in these areas has come up unapproved by local authorities, even mobile phone map applications prove inadequate to track locations deep inside the colonies.
Garg pointed out that staircases in these buildings are built in the centre instead of the periphery. “In case of fire, these staircases act as shafts that allows smoke to engulf the building,” said Garg.
Usually the electric meter boards are installed next to these staircases in such neighbourhoods, said Garg. “In addition, the ground floor is used as parking space. So, fire in these electric boards often gut the vehicles whose seats burn quickly and produce a lot of smoke,” said Garg.
Also, the “excess” consumption of power in such neighbourhoods that trigger these blazes, said a senior police officer. “Since these neighbourhoods are compact, they are hot and humid. So, residents rely on air-conditioners which consume much more power than that is supplied and the wires can withstand. That triggers short circuits and lead to such fires,” said the officer.
Vipin Kental, the DFS director, said that the fire department would be writing to the government to suggest a few “measures to prevent deaths” in case of such fires. “We will recommend change in design of staircases, ventilation in each flat to allow smoke to escape and doors which can withstand flames for up to two hours,” said Kental.
Kental said that the suggestion would be to get the changes made to existing buildings and make them mandatory in upcoming buildings even in such congested neighbourhoods.