Building lacked emergency exit and staircase was only three feet wide

Four women died in a fire that broke out in a commercial complex, Vigneshwar Cresta, at the Lakshmi Mills Junction on Avanashi Road in Coimbatore on Thursday morning.

Police identified the deceased as R. Keerthana (22), a receptionist, Sri Lakshmi (30), working with a share-broking firm and Vijayalakshmi (50) and Margaret Mary (55), both housekeepers. The bodies were charred by the time they were retrieved.

Nine persons were injured. Suganya (27) and Jeevitha alias Jeevalakshmi (24) suffered fractures in the leg when they jumped off the third floor.

The other injured were three Fire and Rescue Services personnel – M. Ramu, M. Raghunathan and S. Jayachandran.

Sakthivel, a member of the public, Rajesh Kumar, Lakshmi Narayanan and Premanandan, who worked in the complex, were also injured.

The commercial complex has nine offices, including those of Axis Bank, ICICI Lombard, Sharekhan (a sharebroking firm) and a firm dealing in computer peripherals.

According to eyewitnesses, thick smoke started billowing from the third floor around 9.25 a.m. and security personnel alerted the staff in all the offices to leave the building.

Thick smoke from burning false ceilings and interior decoration material hampered their rescue efforts. Fire Services officials said the cause of the fire and extent of damage were being investigated.

Senior Regional Manager of Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies Corporation (TNSCS) S. Prabhakaran, who was passing by, stopped his vehicle and alerted all disaster management agencies and top officials concerned.

Police personnel at the signal stopped two city service buses and parked them against the building so that evacuees could use the vehicles as a chute to slide down to safety.

City Police Commissioner A.K. Viswanathan and his contingent were part of the rescue operations. Seven fire tenders battled the blaze for more than two hours.

Air Force Administrative College Commandant M.S.G. Menon, who brought his team, called up the airbase at Sulur for a chopper to rescue nine persons who were stranded on the rooftop. But, by then they were rescued by the Coimbatore Corporation vehicles that are equipped with ladders to repair streetlights.

A battery of ambulances from the 108 service and a number of private hospitals were lined up for shifting the injured.

Police registered a case of 304A (negligence causing death) and 338 (causing grievous hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others) of Indian Penal Code (IPC) against the owner of the building and manager of the commercial complex.

The building lacked an emergency exit and the staircase was only three feet wide against the norm of a minimum of four feet. Also, it had no fire safety licence, said Divisional Fire Officer N. Subramanian.