Blaze spotted at 10.35 a.m., firemen arrive two hours later; shoppers evacuated; staff say building’s electrical system is faulty

A major tragedy was averted on Friday after fire and rescue service personnel put out a blaze that broke out in a shop at Express Avenue, the largest mall in Chennai. No one was injured in the incident.

Several mall employees said the building’s electrical system was in such poor condition that it was a tragedy waiting to happen. They added that a severe staff shortage in the mall’s electrical department had added to the problem.

At 10.35 a.m., a fire broke out in Regal, a retail footwear outlet on the first floor of the mall. Employees of the shop informed the mall’s fire safety officials, who then proceeded to evacuate the entire complex and closed the mall to outsiders. Between 11 a.m. and noon, a cinema-goer at the mall placed a call to the fire and rescue department (101). However, this went unheeded.

As the blaze progressed, at 12.40 p.m., mall officials placed a second call to the fire department, which then rushed four tenders (three of water and one of foam) to the mall, from various locations in the city — at least two hours after the fire had first been spotted.

As smoke poured out of the building, panicked shoppers hurried out, forcing the mall’s staff to shut it down. For over seven hours, operations at all 245 retail outlets and the multiplex cinema in the complex were completely paralysed. Even after the fire had been brought under control by 2.30 p.m. and put out shortly after, smoke continued to billow inside the complex, and broken glass was littered all over central atrium — the result of several broken windows.

Express Avenue’s chief financial officer R.R. Aroonkumar said the mall was reopened to the public and normal operations resumed by 6 p.m. “As a preventive safety measure, we have evacuated the entire premises and ensured safety of the public,” he said.

Most retail outlets, except those in proximity to the gutted shop, resumed work in the evening. “We lost all our products including leather material, worth Rs. 1.87 crore,” said R. Syed Imran, one of the employees of the shop. “Luckily, there were just two customers and eight employees in the shop when the fire broke out. We informed the fire safety department of the mall. They tried tackling the blaze for over two hours. As the smoke spread to other parts of the mall, the fire tenders came to the rescue,” he added.

Fire and rescue services personnel said they received a call from Express Avenue only at 12.40 p.m. even though the fire broke out at 10.35 a.m.

“The smoke had spread to the whole building by then. We had to break open the glass on one side of the building to control the smoke and fire. The blaze was put out only after three fire tenders intervened. The mall management has to learn from this experience and make arrangements to install modern equipment to cope with such emergencies,” said C. Suresh Ananth, additional divisional fire officer.

Fire service personnel also said the blaze was likely caused by an electrical short circuit. An investigation is underway. “In many such accidents, the electrical wiring may be of substandard quality. If the wiring had been fire resistant, this accident could have been averted. As every sq ft of the mall has high commercial value, the retailers try to use as much space as possible. The management should not permit temporary shops in the passageway, as this can cause evacuation problems in an emergency,” said N. Mathavan, a disaster management expert.

Regular visitors of the mall claimed there have been many previous fire accidents in the complex, and emphasised the urgent need for a review of the building’s entire electrical system. When asked about previous fire accidents, Mr. Aroonkumar said there had been only one prior such incident, in 2010. He added: “Prima facie it appears to have been caused by the lapse of the retailer to adhere to safety norms prescribed by the management. Fortunately, since Express Avenue has installed a state-of-the-art integrated building management system catering to high fire and safety standards, no one has been injured in the accident. As soon as the fire alarm sounded, the fire and safety team of Express Avenue rushed to the spot.”

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