Every step down brought them face-to-face with thick smoke

Until 9.45 a.m. on Thursday, it was just another day for A. Manoharan, 28, at his office on the third floor of Vigneshwar Cresta, at the Lakshmi Mills Junction. The stock broking firm employee was sipping tea with his friends, as they used to, before beginning work.

A couple of hours later, he was at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital narrating the close shave with death that his friends and he had in a fire at the building that killed four women and injured nine.

“My friends and I were discussing the work ahead when we noticed thick black smoke billowing on the eastern side of the building. A peep outside the window confirmed our worst fears that it was a fire.”

Employees who were at the eastern side of the building rushed to the western side to escape to safety. A few others cried for help. The employees, numbering around 20, thought they could take the stairs to reach the ground. But they could not as every step down brought them face-to-face with thick smoke.

The employees rushed back to the western side of the building, peeped through the windows, cried for help to draw the attention of those passing by below. By then, the members of the public had stationed a bus on the pavement to help those trapped get down.

Those in the group and atop the bus threw ropes to the third floor, holding on to which women and more than 10 men, who were with Manoharan, got down. “I held as tightly as possible to the rope and slid down in the midst of those waiting to rescue people,” he said and showed his palms, skin peeled off by the rope.

One of the people who helped Manoharan and others was 25-year-old telephone company employee N. Kannan. “On my way to office, I was at the junction, waiting for the signal to turn green when I noticed the fire.”

He stopped his motorcycle to join the members of the public who were on the ground. “Like many others I also extended my hand to catch those jumping from the buildings.”

By then the public had diverted a private bus that plies on Route 5 to the building’s basement to help those jumping from the building. The public rescued around 15 persons.

Mr. Kannan said the members of the public managed to get a rope from the bus driver.

Jeevitha and Suganya, who jumped off the third floor, were operated upon at G. Kuppuswamy Naidu Memorial Hospital for fractures in the leg.

One of the victims of the inferno was J. Margaret, 58, a housekeeping staff at the building. Her son J. Daniel, 26, said Thursday’s fire accident has left him orphaned as he had lost his father 15 years ago. His mother was working at the building for more than 15 years, earning a few thousands to keeping the fire burning at the kitchen. “But for my mother, I would not have continued my education and secured the job of a sales officer at a private bank.” He was waiting at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital mortuary to take his mother’s body.

Leading Fireman M. Raghunathan (48) sustained injuries while battling to save lives. Glass that shattered in the fire hit him and his colleagues while they were atop the fire tender. They are being treated at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital.

V. Karthik, an executive with ICICI Lombard who was in the building, said, "I first saw smoke and in no time there was a major fire. There was total panic and we tried to safely evict some of the women colleagues.”

M. Rajamohan, another employee of the firm, had inhaled a lot of smoke and was rescued using ropes. Even as the police and fire and rescue teams were checking for survivors, women from a nearby locality were weeping, stating that their neighbour Vijayalakshmi was still missing. She was charred to death.

(With inputs from V.S. Palaniappan)

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