On Wednesday, 24 hours before a fire broke out at 1Above, a restro-bar in the plush Kamala Mills compound area of Mumbai, a police team had visited the establishment and found its emergency exit blocked by a wooden partition. “Therefore, in an emergency situation, the customers would not know about the exit route. The stairway is the only way… for visiting and going to the establishment,” reads an FIR registered on Friday, after the early morning fire killed 14 people. The FIR was registered on a statement given by Police Naik Santosh Khedekar, who is attached with the NM Joshi Marg police station.
A senior police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said a police team was sent after the control room received complaints about “blaring music” being played at 1Above and Mojo Bistro.
“We were getting constant complaints from residents in the area so a team was sent on Wednesday night. The team had a heated argument with one of the owners of 1Above, but they left the premises after we levied a fine. On their way down, the team spotted that the emergency exit was blocked. They informed senior police officers, who asked them to question the owners but when the team revisited the spot, the trio had fled,” he said.
Preliminary investigations carried out by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) also point to violation of safety rules at both 1Above and the adjoining Mojo’s Bistro – the roof-top terrace had been covered with tarpaulin sheets held up by bamboo poles, food was cooked on the terrace and the fire exit “narrow and unusable”.
A senior BMC official said norms disallowed use of open-flame cooking on the terrace. “Norms permit only heating of pre-cooked food using a microwave oven or an induction stove in an open-to-sky environment. But we found that the food was being cooked in a portion of the terrace,” he said, adding that the tarpaulin sheets and bamboo poles fanned the fire.
Police suspect that a short circuit may have started the fire.
While investigators are still probing allegations of whether pyrotechnics were performed at Mojo’s Bistro and if 1Above served hookah, a senior civic official said, “Our investigation so far shows that the facility was a tinder box waiting to explode.”
Both police and BMC officials said they had come across several illegal modifications and alterations at the restaurants located on the second floor of the Trade House Building.
Additional Commissioner of police (Central region) S Jayakumar said, “We have received a BMC report and on the basis of their complaint, fresh cases have been registered. The owners of the restaurant-pub (1Above) have made several illegal changes inside their establishment and BMC has given a list on their irregularities.”
Based on the BMC complaints, the Mumbai Police on Saturday registered three fresh FIRs against 1Above, Mojo Bistro and P22, a restaurant in the neighbouring Raghuvanshi Mills area, on charges of violating norms and making “illegal constructions”. Among those booked include Ramesh Govani, owner of Kamala Mills complex; Mojo’s Bristo owners Yug Pathak and Yug Tuli; P22 owner Shailendra Singh and 1Above owners Kripesh Sanghvi, Jigar Sanghvi and Abhijeet Mankar.
On Friday, police had registered an FIR against three directors of Sigrid Ospitalita and Entertainment LLP, which runs 1Above, and the manager of the resto-bar on charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, in addition to other sections.
The police probe has also revealed that the staff and managers of 1Above fled the spot immediately after the fire broke out. “All those killed in the fire were people who were dining at 1Above,” said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Indian Express had reported on Saturday that licenses of the both the facilities were renewed earlier this month despite a series of violations at the site, raising serious questions over the role of BMC’s fire safety regulators, public health inspectors, and officials from the buildings and factories department.
Civic officials confirmed that the role of ward officials and even local elected representatives was being probed. Owners of the facilities will also be probed for the construction of illegal built-up areas, said BMC sources.
On Friday, the Mumbai civic commissioner suspended five officials while transferring Assistant Commissioner Prashant Sapkale from the ward. The officials who have been put under suspension include Building and Factories department’s designated officer Madhukar Shelar, sub-engineer Dinesh Mahale, junior engineer Dharmaraj Shinde, medical officer (health) Dr Satish Badgire, and assistant divisional fire officer SS Shinde.