The fire brigade rescued around 90 to 100 people after a major fire broke out at the nine-storey MTNL building at Bandra here on Monday afternoon.
Anxious MTNL employees stood on the terrace for close to three hours before they were rescued with ladders. The fire brigade deployed a team of officers and firemen and 14 fire engines for the challenging operation. The fire-fighting systems had been shut as the building was reportedly undergoing repairs for the last six months.
MTNL’s Telephone Exchange building is a nine-storey structure that is the head office of its West Zone 1. It houses several departments apart from staff quarters. The building has a terrace and multiple balconies.
The fire broke out on the third and fourth floors around 3 p.m. The flames were confined to the two floors while the smoke engulfed the entire building. While people on floors below the two ran out of the building, the ones above got trapped due to intense smoke. Most people then ran to the building’s terrace and balconies, from where they called out for help.
The fire brigade had initially categorised this as a level II (minor) fire but by 4 p.m., it was escalated to level IV (major). Besides the fire engines, it deployed six jumbo tankers, two turntable ladders, two aerial platforms, one quick response vehicle and one firefighting robot for the job and including officers, firemen, a team of 175 turned up for the challenging operation. Initially, some vehicles blocking their entry had to be removed.
Arun Kini, chief telephone engineer who was having lunch in the 5th floor canteen at the time of the fire said, “I saw some smoke and right then, my colleague came running up and said there was a fire. I alerted everyone and turned off the power switch.”
While Mr. Kini was able to run down himself, his colleagues were not so lucky.
Amruta Kaluste, who works on the 5th floor said, “I was also in the canteen but when I ran towards the staircase, it was filled with smoke. There were about 20-25 of us. We took refuge in a cabin until the fire brigade came and rescued us.”
Smita Kadam, who works in the civil administration department on the 8th floor said, “Thankfully our terrace was unlocked. There were almost 50 of us on the terrace. People were panicked and in stress. We stood there for almost three hours before we were rescued. It was very stressful.”
Employees mentioned that the third and fourth floors had the general manager’s office as well as record rooms.
Several people trapped on the terrace were in tears after they were rescued by the fire brigade. The brigade was rescuing four people at a time using its ladders. As soon as they came down, most employees who had their cellphones, called their colleagues to check on them. They also called their families or in some cases, anxious families waited outside the building for their relatives.
Laxmi Choubey from the billing department on floor six-and-a-half said that women were brought down the building first followed by men. Employees mentioned that the building has fire extinguishers.
“I was working on the 6th floor, around 3.15 pm, when we smelt something burning. As it got stronger, we realised that a fire had broken out in the floors below. People from the building right across us also started yelling, asking us to move out. We tried taking the stairs to go down, but it was filled with dense smoke. So we had to move up and went to the 9th floor, where we stayed for close to two hours, before we were rescued in groups of three,” said Teju Koli,59, one of the workers who was rescued.
“We noticed the smoke, around 3.30 pm, and tried to warn the people working inside. Our building is right opposite theirs, and so as the fire increased, the smoke filled our rooms also. Even now, when the fire has relatively calmed down, the smoke is so heavy, it’s difficult to breathe and our eyes sting,” said Nafeesa Qureshi Afa, a witness and a resident of the building right across.
Pankaj Meshram who works in electrical maintenance was among the last to be removed from the terrace.
“Some people had panicked a lot, some were calm. We knew the fire was not going to reach the terrace. But our fear was the smoke,” said Mr. Meshram.
The building had a large number of optic fibre cables that led to carbon monoxide build-up and thus, caused breathing difficulty for employees and firemen.
Meanwhile, the nearby Anjuman Islam School let its students go home early. Moiz Qureshi, whose daughter Hurain studies in this school said, “The school gets over around 4 p.m., today it was let go a little early. There was no panic.”
“The school was cleared out at 3.30 pm, as the smoke started settling. It had become very difficult for us to breathe, and the kids were so uncomfortable, they were crying. So the parents were called and the school was vacated,” said Syed Mohammad Abbas, the security guard of the Anjuman Islam School.
The telephone exchange building has reportedly been undergoing repairs for about six months.
“Due to the repairs, it appears that the firefighting systems were shut,” said an officer from H West ward. He also mentioned that the generators supplying power to the sprinklers was disconnected.
Bandra MLA Ashish Shelar who was at the spot said, “It is surprising that a government building like MTNL did not have firefighting equipment. The sprinklers were not working. Also, for some reason, they had a power plant on the 4th floor. I had a word with the GM of MTNL who confirmed that no employees are missing. I have also requested the CM to institute an inquiry in the matter.”
Chief fire officer Prabhat Rahangdale said, “The building’s firefighting equipment was not functioning. The toxic smoke made it a very challenging operation. Besides, the area is huge. We used seven access points to spray water using jets. MTNL has informed us that there are no employees missing. Even then, we will continue a search.”
Search operations had not been called off at the time of going to press.
The MTNL telephone connection in nearby areas will remain down for the next few days.