Sealed stairs, illegal dome: Lapses in Surat building where 23 died in fire
A preliminary inquiry by the Gujarat government into the fire at a coaching centre in Surat on Friday which killed 23 students, has found that an alternate staircase in Taxshilla commercial building was sealed and the structure was regularized despite the illegal dome on the roof in 2015.
The report also said the two fire engines with hydraulic lifts that could have evacuated the trapped students in the building reached the fire site 40 minutes after the first call was made to the fire control room.
According to the report submitted by Mukesh Puri, principal secretary (Urban Development), the illegal dome structure of hardly 7-feet in height on the roof, where the Smart Design Studio (a coaching institute) classes were being held, was in existence since 2015 when the building was regularised under the Impact Fee Act for the commercial buildings.
The fire brigade wing of the Surat Municipal Corporation conducted a fire safety survey of the commercial buildings in the city in December 2018 but no notice for the illegal structure (the dome over the roof) was served.
Puri, in his report, said electrical spark in the outdoor air-conditioning in north-western side of the building caused the fire. The fire spread very fast due to highly combustible materials such as multiple flex banners put up across the building.
The fire had further spread to the upper floors through wooden panel of iron ladder between third and fourth. The false roof-ceiling and the designer tyres being used for students to sit accentuated the flames, the report said.
The report also revealed that contrary to the earlier perception that there was only one staircase between third floor and the roof there was another exit route, which was found to be locked.
This led to 15 people including owner of the design studio Bhargav Butani jumping from the roof to save their lives. All the 23, who died were either on the third floor or the covered roof, were students either at the design studio or a summer drawing class centre.
“The second staircase, which was not made of iron or wood but of relatively less combustible concrete material, was permanently sealed at both the ends on third and fourth floor. This was a criminal act. The police have been conducting inquiry into this matter and a criminal case will be registered against those who had closed the second staircase,” Puri said.
With only staircase open then was engulfed in fire and in absence of fire engines equipped with hydraulic lifts, the students were forced to jump off or either stay back in floor filled with massive fire and smoke. There were some labourers working in the basement as well. But they were saved as they had closed the entry gate, the report said.
Puri said that it was still a matter of the investigation whether power overload, ill functioning wiring system or faulty MCB caused the spark in the AC unit. A high tension transformer has also been located at 330 meters from the building, “The Dakshin Gujarat Vij Limited Company (local power distribution company) is also been conducting a separate investigation into the matter,” he said.
The report also said that the fire brigade wing of the Surat city, which has population of over two million and have high rise buildings up to 14 stories, had only two fire engines with two hydraulic lifts that can reach beyond two floors.
“While the basic fire vehicle from Kapodara fire station reached the spot in Varachha in couple of minutes, hydraulic vehicles took 40 minutes. Surat has only two hydraulic fire fighting vehicles that can go above 10.5 meter height and when fire broke around 4 pm, those were not available in nearby stations,” Puri said. He added that this flaw was there not only in Surat but also in other big cities of the state.
On Monday, Congress leader Hardik Patel, who demanded Surat Mayor Jagdish Patel’s resignation, was detained before he could reach site of the disaster to sit on an indefinite fast. Leader of Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly and Congress leader Paresh Dhanani on Monday demanded strict enforcement of fire safety norms in all buildings in the state.
“We will ask the government to ensure strict implementation of fire safety norms in all schools, coaching classes, hospitals, commercial buildings and hotels across the state,” Dhanani told.
Puri has maintained that so far only preliminary investigation has done and details findings may form the base for strengthening fire safety policies in the state.
The owner of the design studio Bhargav Butani and two builders Harshul Vekariya and Jignesh Padgal have been arrested and booked for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, apart from other relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, the police said.