Fire in a Heritage Building, Kolkata A case study Background: Kolkata has been nicknamed the City of Palaces. This comes from the numerous palatial mansions built all over the city. Some of the major buildings of this period are well maintained and several buildings have been declared as heritage structures. Today, many of these structures are in various stages of decay. Conservation efforts are patchy and are often affected by problems of litigation, tenant troubles, ownership disputes, old tenancy laws and a lack of funds.
On March 23 2010, a devastating fire broke out in a 150-year-old building on the iconic Park Street in Kolkata. Stephen Court, the landmark seven-storey building, housed the legendary confectioners Flury’s, restaurant Peter Cat, Music World store, the offices of Jet Airways and Power Max, among others. It also housed residences. A major part of the building was destroyed. The Mishap: The fire, which was caused by an electrical short circuit started around 2. 30 pm in one of the elevators on the upper floors and spread swiftly.
Soon, flames Started leaping out of almost every window. The wooden staircase of the building was destroyed and parts of the building crumbled. About 300 firemen fought the blaze with 45 fire tenders and ladders. At least 25 people died and numerous injured as the fire broke out. The fire swept through a large a portion of the top two floors of the Stephen Court building, which houses mainly call centers and residences. This was the third major fire in Kolkata in two years and the second in a metropolitan city.
A fire in a multi-storeyed office complex in Bangalore killed nine people on Feb 23. With the fire snapping at their heels, office workers and residents were driven to jump out of windows. Firemen used hydraulic ladders to rescue people, including a 90-year-old man. Onlookers complained that the fire engines arrived an hour late though one fire brigade is on Free School Street, a stone’s throw away from Park Street. Soon after the fire began; there was a huge traffic snarl as crowds collected on the arterial road, making it difficult for the fire tenders to access the building.
The fire tenders with their hydraulic lifts finally rescued many people at least two hours after the fire broke out. The army too, arrived an hour later. Anxious relatives thronged various city hospitals and in front of the morgue of the SSKM hospital to identify the bodies. The Inside Story: According to records with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, there is one official trustee of the building along with 45 apportioned shareholders. KMC has declared Stephen Court as a Grade-II heritage building for its architectural value.
Police Commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakraborty said the fifth and sixth floors of the building where the fire broke out were constructed illegally and these were later regularised. This revelation tells the whole story. The two top floors, where the fire broke out, were added around 1984 and have 32 apartments. The upper two floors of the building did not conform to the safety norms and yet no action was taken until it caused loss of lives and property. It was a disaster waiting to happen with haphazard wiring, inflammable material like wooden stairs, cables and metal beams besides closed exit points.
Few tried to escape from the roof but the door upstairs was locked and then they were not left with any option but either to get burnt alive or to jump out of the building to get killed in a different manner. The casualties could have been lesser, had the response been quick enough. But the authorities were not prepared in advance to tackle a disaster of such measure and this resulted in a catastrophe. Flames oozing out of the building News coverage: Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited the building for 10 minutes on his way to the state secretariat.
He instructed the police and the fire brigade to rescue anyone trapped inside and asked the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to pull down the damaged portion of the building, which the state government had ordered to be vacated. “I saw two desperate people, unable to bear the searing heat and fumes, cling on to the edge of the terrace and then jump to their death from the sixth floor in a desperate bid to stay alive,” said Rupa Ghosh, the shadow of death still darkening her face.
An employee of the OTS transport company which had its office on the second floor of the Stephen Court building, Ghosh herself jumped to the ground when she thought the fire would engulf her office as well. Dilip Kumar Basu, chairman of engineering firm Power Max India, was traumatized: “My office, spread across the fourth and fifth floors, is gone…” Union rail minister Mamata Banerjee arrived at the spot one-and-a-half hours later and said she had delayed her arrival so no one would accuse her of hampering rescue efforts.
The West Bengal Police Commissioner Gautam Chakraborty said: “We had asked the building association president for a plan of the building and a list of tenants, but these were not provided to us. If we had the list, we could have saved some more people. ” Lessons to Learn: •Avoiding the fire safety norms may lead to such events in future also, be it a heritage building, a hotel, guest house or any other place. So strict adherence to fire safety norms will not only reduce risk to a great extent and ensure safety but also would improve the image of the place concerned. The repercussions of constructing few floors of a building illegally may not be seen within a short span of time but there is always a possibility that the danger might be lurking around. •The authorities concerned such as fire brigade must be prepared all the time to control such disasters on time as it could have saved lot many lives had they been prepared enough in this case. • A proper plan of the building and its mapping should be made available to the rescue team so that they can move in the building as swiftly as possible.
Talking about hotels, they can provide a route map to the visitors which would be of great help to them in the time of crisis. As we have already seen 26/11 where the terrorists had complete idea of the Taj as an unconfirmed report indicated that one of the terrorists interned for 10 months as a chef at the Taj. This would explain why the terrorists in Mumbai had much greater knowledge of the hotels and security process than the commandos charged with securing them. Even the minutest thing sometimes may create havoc as it happened with Stephen Court building. The short circuit claimed too many lives which could have been avoided if the owners had been proactive. Firemen on job Conclusion: During the British colonial era from 1700–1912, when Kolkata was the capital of British India, Kolkata witnessed a spate of frenzied construction activity of buildings. Most of these buildings have now been declared as heritage buildings.
But presently, these buildings are equipped with large number of electrical gadgets and are visited by humongous crowd. That is why they are very prone to disasters. Every building must follow the fire safety norms as it will not cost much as compared to the loss incurred by Stephen Court building. This age old adage is still very true that “Prevention is always better than cure. ” References: •http://en. wikipedia. org •www. ndtv. com •www. zeenews. com •www. dnaindia. com