Exit locked, victims of Delhi’s Anaj Mandi fire were trapped by blaze
For over 80 workers living in the five-storey building that was used as factories and warehouses in Anaj Mandi Gali in north Delhi, Saturday night was a time to relax with friends and plan their Sunday, a day off from the gruelling routine of 12-15 hours of work.
After work, every Saturday, they got together, made phone calls to families and planned Sunday outings with friends.
Most of them were asleep by 2am, huddled in whatever space they could find – on sheets spread on cold floor, in congested spaces between machines, and on top of packed goods in small rooms. These were the same spaces where they worked on machines, cooked and ate every day.
The workers were used to waking up late on Sundays. But this time, for most occupants, Sunday never came. For others, the night gave way to a nightmare.
By most accounts, a fire broke out between 4am and 4.30am. Azmat Ali, a neighbour, said, “Around 4.15am, I was woken up by screams from the third floor that there was a fire there. But they seemed to have doused the flames by themselves.”
Like other locals, Ali did not think too much of this and the fire department said no call was received at that time. Mohammad Naseem, another neighbour, said a fire had broken out in the same building around midnight in March this year. “The workers themselves had controlled the blaze back then,” he said.
But it appears, somewhere in the building, a flame continued to rage, unknown to residents. By the time the fire department received the first call at 5.22am, it was too late. Delhi Fire Services director Atul Garg said he wasn’t sure what happened between 4am and the time of call to authorities. Four fire tenders reached the spot within minutes, but they couldn’t get through as the lone entrance to the neighbourhood was narrow and congested. As the fire trucks struggled to access the lane, 70-odd people remained trapped in a burning building .
“There were two exits in the building. One in the rear was locked from outside. We broke the lock, but found the staircases blocked with packed goods. The people living on the second and third floors couldn’t access the other staircase as it was on fire,” said Sunil Kumar, a senior fire officer.
The firefighters first entered the building’s ground and first floor and rescued six to seven occupants, many of whom couldn’t walk without support. “When we reached the spot, the sole exit point was open. Many women and children living on the ground and first floor had escaped early,” Garg said.
“Those rescued didn’t tell us that there were so many more inside,” Kumar said.
Inside the building, a few occupants had woken up and some had managed to escape through the terrace. Since the fire was limited to the front portion of the building, they ran towards the rear, only to find themselves trapped by high walls with small windows covered by iron grilles and mesh nets.
“People on the second and third floors were stretching their hands out of windows and begging us to rescue them. ‘Bacha lo, kuch toh karo (save us, please do something),’ said one. Another said he had children back home. A third man I used to see on the streets, reminded me that we knew each other,” Mohammed Naseem, a neighbour, said.
Residents responded by pouring water from their overhead tanks, but that hardly helped. “We threw water using buckets and mugs, but that didn’t even reach the windows. There was nothing else we could do,” Yasmin Begum, who lives behind the fire site, said.
Muhammad Mustafa, 24, who was rescued, said he couldn’t find an escape route as the staircase was burning. “For over an hour, I stood near a window to be able to breathe,” he said.
Another survivor, 22-year-old Mohammad Afzal, said he dipped his muffler in water and wrapped it around his face to escape the fumes before rushing to a window to get some air. “I was semi-conscious when I felt someone carry me to safety,” Afzal said.
Meanwhile, firefighters used a ladder between two buildings to cut open a window and rescue a few people. But when they entered the building through the window, the most ghastly scenes awaited them.
“There was hardly anyone seeking help by the time we gained entry. People were lying huddled in congested spaces. They were sleeping in spaces where one could not even sit. Their faces appeared tired, but peaceful. Most of them were asphyxiated in their sleep; they probably never even woke up,” the fire officer said.
Helped by civil defence volunteers, firefighters began carrying unconscious men on their shoulders. “Four of us would carry a man towards the ambulances. It seemed like we were carrying furniture,” SK Surana, a 55-year-old civil defence volunteer, said.
The raging flames slowed rescue operations. Outside the building, and elsewhere in the country, relatives and friends of the people trapped inside fervently called on their mobile phones. The few who responded pleaded to be rescued or bid adieu to their dear ones .
Kumar said many workers were rescued only due to the incessant ringing of their phones. “We would hear a phone ring, look around and find someone in an unimaginably small space,” Kumar said.
Kumar returned home thinking that he and his team had saved most occupants. “I thought the casualty count would be about 10. When I switched on the television, I couldn’t believe the count I saw,” Kumar said.