AT 5 am on Friday, 32-year-old Naushad saw smoke billowing from a three-storey building in Sahibabad’s Shaheed Nagar locality. Within minutes, he heard screams and saw flames engulfing the building. “I saw a large group of people outside the building and rushed there. The shutter on the ground floor could not be lifted. Some of us broke through a portion of the side wall. When we finally gained access into the building, we found men trapped inside,” said Naushad.
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He was among hundreds of residents who tried to save the workers when the fire broke out at the building, which was illegally being used as a manufacturing unit for winter jackets.
Eyewitnesses said the fire, which had erupted on the ground floor, had burnt through the rexine (used in making the jackets) which led to the formation of a huge amount of smoke.
As a result, 13 employees of the unit suffocated and burnt to death while three others sustained injuries.
Sandwiched between two pink three-storey house and an unpainted brick dwelling, the charred three storey-structure was taken on rent for a year by two residents in the locality, Rizwan and Nazakat. They have been arrested.
While the building’s facade was covered in black soot, a black backpack and burnt remains of clothes hung on the wall of one of its rooms. Six sewing machines, upturned stools, cartons and scraps of leather lay strewn across the floor.
The building did not just serve as a manufacturing unit but had been home to at least 17 men who had come from various parts of Uttar Pradesh in search of employment.
Rizwan (22), one of the employees, had come from Bareilly to Ghaziabad in
search of work around six months ago.
“I came here with two others from my village earlier this year. I was on the ground floor when the fire broke out. I hid inside a toilet and came out only when people came to rescue us. All of us used to live and work here,” he said.
According to police and the district administration, the unit did not have any permission to operate. Due to the narrow streets in the locality, fire tenders could not reach the spot immediately, they said.
“The fire tenders had reached the area but they could not get inside. A smaller vehicle reached the place but it soon ran out of water. Residents tried to extinguish the fire but it could not be controlled. Those who died were on the top floor. We would have needed a ladder to reach them. Had the fire brigade reached here sooner, more lives could have been saved,” said Naushad.
Anup Singh, CO Sahibabad, said, “The two men we arrested have been running the unit for at least ten years. We have arrested them and they are being questioned. Those who died in the incident are dailywage labourers from other parts of UP — some are from Bareilly, one from Hapur, another from Bulandshahr. Their families have been informed and they will be arriving in the capital to claim the bodies.”