Camouflaged fire exits, their locks wrenched open by desperate rescue volunteers, stand testimony to what went horribly wrong on February 23 evening when smoke engulfed the seven-storey Carlton Towers here, choking its occupants forcing most of the nine casualties to leap to their deaths.

With the building being thrown open on Friday to the occupants to retrieve their belongings, the safety violations within the building were there for all to see.

Corridor encroached

Contrary to Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike’s claim that there were no plan violations, reporters found encroachment of corridor space on at least three floors, not to mention the more serious transgression, namely, that fire exit doors on several floors were firmly locked from the inside. This, as eyewitnesses asserted, was directly responsible for people being trapped within the smoke-filled upper floors. The entrance to the two fire exits on the ground floor too was firmly locked. At least two such exits used large metallic locks, while others had knob-based locks to block access.

Fire exits cut off

Block A of Carlton Towers had, in its original form, wide corridors with four office units (each roughly 500 square feet) on each side. The lift lobby and a staircase cut the corridor in half, with fire exits at the end of these corridors. The reorganisation of the space on the second, third and fourth floors into large and exclusive office units — which no doubt commanded higher rents for the owners — not only illegally encroached upon common corridors space but effectively cut off the fire exits for occupants.

Take the third floor, for example. The entire space is divided into two exclusive units: a former newspaper office and a software solutions firm. Neither of the two fire exits is visible from the main entrance, and those who helped in rescue operations on Tuesday confirmed that at least one of the two doors was found locked. Several employees told The Hindu they did not know of these exit routes, and indeed the Fire and Emergency Services personnel later used these very routes to lead trapped employees to safety. None of these exits had indicators or the mandatory signboards.

Rakesh Ramachandran, an employee of luxury hotel The Leela Palace, who helped in the rescue operations, said they had to bring special tools to break open at least five doors. The service ducts, where the fire is believed to have originated, face the stairwell, making it impossible for people to take the stairs. Charred remains of the tin sheet that covered the duct indicate that smoke was thickest around the staircase area. Employees, who were stuck in the upper floor offices, said thick smoke had enveloped the corridor.

As for the terrace, sturdy iron grills blocked access to it. Sources confirmed that barrels of diesel were stored here. At least four telecom service providers have rented space, operating DC generators here. Each tower owner pays a monthly rent ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 30,000. Other stakeholders in the building allege that “use of property” rights have been abused to assume ownership of this area.

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