The site where the St. Augustine’s Church collapsed at Aroor on Monday could not have been more chaotic, a testimony to how ill-equipped Ernakulam and Alappuzha districts were in dealing with such a disaster.
According to standard disaster management protocol, an accident of this magnitude warranted a specialised Collapsed Structure Search and Rescue (CSSR) team, comprising personnel proficient in entering disaster sites and carrying out rescue operations. But no such team was part of the rescue operations on Monday.
A building collapse called for the same disaster management measures followed in the case of an earthquake.
At Aroor, no measures were put in place to manage crowds, with people milling around the site of the collapsed structures, hampering search and rescue operations. Continuous requests by the church authorities, through public announcement system, asking people to leave the site fell on deaf ears. More people kept coming after learning of the accident through television channels.
Police had a tough time making way for ambulances and fire tenders to the accident site. Though the police closed the church gates, a large number of people had already entered the premises. People also kept clicking images of the disaster on their mobile phones.
Local volunteers stepped in to keep the crowd away by cordoning off the area with ropes.
Even warnings about the threat of another collapse during the rescue operations did not drive the people away.
The disaster also drew attention to the absence of hand-held specialised equipment to break into concrete structures. One of the victims could be seen trapped under a fallen structure but could not be pulled out for want of proper equipment. The medical team was unable to administer first aid to him.
The use of excavators, as witnessed at the site, posed a real danger of bringing down the existing structures as well. The accident once again highlighted the lacunae in structural safety, said S. Suresh, a structural consultant in the city. The existing building rules and norms did not insist on the presence or approval of a structural engineer while the building was under construction.
It had to be scientifically examined whether the temporary structure erected for the concrete work would support the construction load, including weight of wet cement, equipment used and the number of workers in action, Mr. Suresh said.
The Kerala Municipal Building Rules put the onus of ensuring safety of the structure on the owner and consultant.
The municipal body’s role ended with the approval of the building plan, he said, adding that the rules had to be changed. The Department of Fire and Rescue Services is also ill-equipped to meet an emergency of this scale.
The Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Kottayam divisions, which were involved in the rescue operations, face severe staff shortage.
The personnel also lacked knowledge about the rescue procedure to be adopted during a building collapse.
Department sources pointed out that such operations could not be carried out without cranes to remove the rubble. The force also lacked life detector sensors that could pick up signals from possible survivors.
They suggested that state-of-the-art equipment fitted with thermal cameras should be inserted into the wreckage after making holes to locate survivors and extricate them with gas cutters.