The silver lining for organisers of the Maharashtra Night event at Girgaum Chowpatty on Sunday evening was that despite the massive fire burning down the entire stage, the fire brigade and police officials together averted a bigger crisis by implementing a swift and effective evacuation.
Nearly 7,000 people, including dignitaries and Bollywood stars, were evacuated within the first 10 minutes. Immediately after the fire broke out around 8.20 pm, officials said, a pre-approved disaster management plan for the event that had been practised in advance was activated. “It was executed well,” said a senior fire department officer.
He added, “Avoiding panic or a stampede-like situation was the first priority. People were evacuated through various exits.”
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis also praised the rescue operation later. “We had conducted a fire safety audit at the venue four days ago and a comprehensive disaster management plan was designed for the evening. A debriefing session was also held before the event. All dignitaries and performers were aware of the various emergency exits. This led to swift evacuation. There was no traffic trouble too,” he said.
Apart from 14 fire tenders and 10 water tankers that were pressed into service, Additional Municipal Commissioner Sanjay Deshmukh said, six ambulances were mobilised. “All civic, government and private hospitals in the area were put on alert,” he said. As part of fire safety measures for the event, the Mumbai Fire Brigade had already stationed four fire engines and two ambulances at the venue.
The disaster management plan worked smoothly around the five exit points. First, the chief minister and his family were evacuated, followed by Governor C Vidyasagar Rao and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray. They left from the exit near the Nana Nani park. Other ministers and foreign dignitaries seated behind them were also evacuated from the same exit.
Another exit, the one opening near the Chowpatty traffic signal, was used to evacuate Bollywood actors and dignitaries seated behind them. About 200 to 300 dignitaries were escorted out from here. Three other exits on the main road were used to evacuate the public. One entrance was used to allow men to leave, another for women and children and third for families.
The traffic department of the Mumbai Police swung into action to prevent traffic jams, and vehicular movement was temporarily suspended at the Babulnath and Air India junctions to prevent further ingress of vehicles on to Marine Drive .
“These roads had to be blocked, people had spilled on to the roads. The road already congested couldn’t be further crowded by vehicles. The fire brigade needed to reach soon, we needed to create space for them,” said a senior traffic department official. “Movements of important dignitaries were tracked by our CCTV camera network. Their convoy was diverted towards the suburbs,” he said.
After the fire was doused, some vehicles parked near the venue could not be moved as their drivers could not be located. Police announcements were being made asking for drivers to head to their vehicles. One announcement was also made asking for whoever had the keys to actor Aamir Khan’s vanity van to report to the policemen.
The dancers on stage and in the green rooms were the most relieved. Most of them who were backstage when the fire broke out escaped by breaking the green room door and running out towards the sea. “The only people who did not know there was a fire were the dancers who were performing on the stage. The music was stopped soon after the fire was noticed and the crowd began screaming to alert them to run towards the back. “There were over 1,000 people backstage in the green rooms or waiting for their turn to perform. The wind direction was leading to the fire fanning towards where the most number of people were. Some of us had to break the green room and run,” said Pompi Mondol, a dancer at the venue.
Mondol said her bag that had her wallet, PAN card and clothes was missing as that of several artistes whose bags were in the green room. “So much happened all of a sudden that we just ran for our lives. We didn’t bother to take anything along,” said Mondol.