Water shortage and crowding of vehicles around building hampered fire-fighting

“It’s by His [God’s] grace I survived today,” was Vilas Mone’s plaintive response to his near brush with death at Mantralaya. Mr. Mone, a worker in the Tribal Welfare Department, was holding on by the skin of his teeth on the fifth-floor parapet, with a couple of his colleagues, awaiting rescue.

Maharashtra Tribal Affairs Minister Babanrao Pachpute told The Hindu that the fire broke out in an office of the Higher and Technical Education Department on the fourth floor. “That office is adjacent to my office. I heard a loud sound and the lights went off. When I asked my Personal Assistant, he said it was due to a short circuit. Once I saw the fire, I instructed my staff to alert everyone to get out of the building. I was the last one to come out,” he said.

Asked if he used any fire extinguishers, he said they were too little to work on the huge fire. “There are papers everywhere and that helped the fire to spread rapidly.”

The smoke from the fire hung like a huge cloud over the building and created a haze in the Oval Maidan. While 5,500 people were present when the fire broke out, 65 were rescued, Principal Secretary, Relief and Rehabilitation, Pravinsinh Pardeshi, later told reporters.

The fire totally engulfed the fifth and sixth floors, destroying the offices of the Housing Development, the Urban Development Department, the Tribal Welfare Department, and the Chief Secretary.

An official on the seventh floor had to clamber down after the fire broke out, and most people heard the fire alarm and left the building in a hurry. While questions were raised on the tardiness of the fire-fighting operations, Mr. Pardeshi played down suggestions of any violation of the Standard Operating Procedures. He maintained that the fire brigade might have encountered problems due to traffic congestion along the building avenue.

However, fire-fighting was hampered by several factors — and among them was the crowding of vehicles around the building.

M.V. Deshmukh, Director of Fire Services, said, “Continuous water supply was not there. There was some interruption. Plus, the wind velocity was very high. So the fire was spreading fast. We saved the fourth and fifth floors partly, and one side of the sixth floor. We tried to contain the fire instead of dousing it, for dousing would have resulted in waste of a lot of water. The storage water had got exhausted. So, we were pumping water from the water bowsers. Each bowser can hold 16,000 litres. Since, we were getting water from the bowsers, continuous supply of water was getting interrupted.”

Mr. Deshmukh said “adequate” staircases facilitated quick evacuation. “There are 13 staircases in the building, which is a plus point, because people didn’t get trapped. Roughly, six of them are fire escapes, and seven are main staircases.”

He said, “The alarm rang after a sudden blast in the circuit of the air conditioner. But immediately, the power was shutdown as required. The major problem was that the paper and wooden partitions caused the rapid spread of fire.”

Another official, who did not want to be quoted, said there was a mention of a delay in water supply to the fire hydrant. “The fire hydrant has a switching system, which wasn’t functioning initially,” he said.

There are around five fire extinguishers on each floor. When the fire broke out, the power mains were switched off. Vehicles parked inside the premises were removed. LPG cylinders in the storeroom were also removed. A nearby petrol pump was also alerted, the official said.

Officials couldn’t answer questions on if the internal fire-fighting mechanism worked at the critical time or failed. They didn’t even have information regarding the last fire audit conducted on the premises. But the Chief Minister said the fire drill conducted every second Saturday of each month helped in peaceful evacuation at the place, without causing any damage to life.

Offices to work today

Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said offices would continue working on Friday, from alternative places like the State Assembly, the Sahyadri Guest House, Extension Building of the State Secretariat.

“All the Secretaries will have an urgent meeting at 8.30 p.m., where they will decide on the details. They will inform the employees where they have to come tomorrow. Visitors won’t be allowed though.”

Regarding loss of documents in the fire, the Chief Minister said the State government had started implementing the project of digital scanning of all files last year. “Under the project, 2.27 lakh files, including 3.18 crore papers, were scanned in the past one year. The work isn’t yet complete. We will be able to assess the damage only after we are able to enter the building.”

Structural audit

“We will try to conduct a structural audit tomorrow. We will do video recording, and if the structural engineers allow, our officers will evaluate the losses in the building,” he said.

More In: National | News