Safety recommendations have been ignored, says an official; now water seepage is a concern

The Satyameva Jayate emblem adorning the façade of the Mantralaya building is covered with soot. Broken window panes tell the story of rescues and escapes from an inferno that engulfed the building on Thursday.

“There’s ash everywhere. If you stand at one end you see right through till the other end. There is nothing in between,” S.C. Mohanty, Director of the Disaster Management Cell, Maharashtra, told The Hindu on the phone on Saturday.

On Friday, he surveyed the damage to the Secretariat’s fourth, fifth and sixth floors.

To Mr. Mohanty’s surprise, a ceramic memento which had been given to him during a felicitation was intact in his fifth floor office.

The condition of the Chief Minister’s office was not very bad compared to the devastation around, he said. “It had two concrete walls so the damage was less. The carpet on the office floor was intact.”

The fire ravaged the inside, but the structure of the building itself was not damaged. Moreover, the first three floors and the ground floor were not affected. The offices located on these floors could begin work, said Mr. Mohanty.

The concern, however, is over water seepage from the cooling operations. “All the files on the lower floors are getting damaged by the dripping water since there is no waterproofing system,” he said.

The losses have been put at about Rs. 200 crore, although there are varying estimates.

Recalling the fateful day, Mr. Mohanty said that when the disaster struck around 2.30 p.m., word of mouth was the only communication possible, in the absence of alarm and public announcement systems.

“The entire building was evacuated of people and vehicles by 3 p.m.,” he said. The Disaster Management Cell, he said, had little role to play in the rescue operation.

However, fire officials lost precious minutes from the word go. Apart from a delay in passing and receiving information about the fire, a variety of obstructions hindered the rescue operations.

The fire officials were late in reaching the spot and had difficulty manoeuvring the packed car park of the Secretariat. The presence of highly inflammable material and the strong sea breeze compounded problems for them.

The result: the fire spread and ravaged the inside of the building, killing five persons and injuring 16.

“Communication gap”

“There was a communication gap,” said a top official who did not wish to be quoted. “We lost 25 minutes initially. The call was not received properly. The fire control got the call late, around 2.40 p.m. By the time the fire brigade reached the fire propagation was much more,” the official said. Another 20 minutes were lost “due to the obstructions.”

“When the fire brigade arrived, there were a lot of obstructing vehicles. The Deputy Chief Minister himself helped in clearing away the vehicles. The biggest problems for us were the paper, the wood, the upholstery and wind. The offices of the Urban Development Department Secretaries, and the Deputy Chief Minister were fully gutted.”

“Who called the Navy?”

What stumped fire officials, as they battled against odds, was the sudden appearance of naval helicopters. “Who called them? Calling the Navy was the stupidest thing to do. The rotors aggravated the fire. We were not consulted before the choppers were pressed into service,” the official said.

Another fire official, who was on the spot, told The Hindu on the phone, “We could not go inside. The fire systems were off. There was just too much smoke. So wearing a mask was futile. The automatic pumping water system could not be operated. There was water shortage and the refilling system was slow. Initially, for the first one and a half hours, we were just rescuing people. So the fire kept spreading. We shifted people from what we could see. Some had shut themselves in rooms out of fear thinking they would be safe.”

Official apathy

The Mantralaya fire is a classic case of official apathy. In 2008, a committee was constituted to review fire safety systems in high-rise buildings in Mumbai. “The committee report made certain recommendations that the fire alarm system should be in order, the detection system should be functional, the standing pipes should be functional, the electrical circuit-breakers should be in place and the patching of cables should be done,” M.V. Deshmukh, Director, Maharashtra Fire Services, told The Hindu.

Among the recommendations was provision of a sprinkler system, which was not there in the Mantralaya building.

Pointing to the disregard of the committee’s recommendations, an official, on condition of anonymity, said: “I have sent follow-up letters on the recommendations to the Public Works Department two or three times. The department responded only saying the recommendations had been received.” But it was reluctant to say if compliance was ensured.

The escape

For Satish Lait, the Chief Minister’s Public Relations Officer (PRO), and his colleagues, the many staircases in the building proved futile. A group of PROs had gone to Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar’s office to discuss a wage issue, when the fire broke out.

“A man came running,” recalled Mr. Lalit. “He cried, ‘Fire! Fire! Run Out!’ We waited for Mr. Pawar to leave. A little later when we opened the door a strong gust of smoke came in. We knew we could not go out. The lights went off and we were in total darkness. We knew we were trapped.”

The group then decided to break open the windows and climb down the pipes up to the fifth floor. “We spent about an hour and 15 minutes inside the room. Around 3.45 p.m. Mr. Pawar’s chamber caught fire. Had we waited even two minutes more, we would have died. We were already choking on smoke.” When Mr. Lalit climbed down, his foot got caught in a cable.

As everyone made efforts to escape, Shivaji Korde of the Nationalist Congress Party was left behind. “He thought someone would come to his rescue. That the fire would be extinguished. No one thought it would be such a big fire and it would spread so much. No one understood the seriousness of it and by the time they did, it was too late,” Mr. Lalit said.

The Mantralaya blaze is one of the biggest fires in recent memory.

“It was an extraordinary event,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Nisar Tamboli. Around 400 police personnel have been pressed into service to guard the premises. As the salvage and cooling operations are still on, there is no telling when the scattered government offices and bureaucrats will come under one roof again.