Five minutes after receiving the fire call early Sunday morning, 39-year-old Satpal, a fire operator at Rani Jhansi Road fire station, was outside the lane in North Delhi’s Anaj Mandi. The call was received at 5.22 am; by 5.35 am, Satpal had made a call about back-up and rushed inside the five-storey building wearing his breathing apparatus.
Satpal was one of the first firefighters to enter the building where a suspected short circuit led to the fire, killing 43 people. However, little had prepared him for what was unfolding inside the building, from where 63 men and boys were removed.
“I entered from the front… the stairs were on fire and there was smoke everywhere. No one told us how many people were inside… I thought maybe 2, 5, or 10. I didn’t think there would be 63 people. Men were lying on the floor in heaps — some breathing, some already dead. Others asked me for help and fainted soon after,” said Satpal, a father of two boys.
The last time Satpal dealt with a “serious-category” fire was at AIIMS in August, where he was a part of firefighting operations. He joined the DFS a decade ago, and was trained at Rohini Sector 7 fire training centre.
Apart from breathing apparatus sets, firefighters were equipped with ropes, lock cutters and fire hooks. “In my 10 years at DFS, this was one of the most horrific situations I have faced,” said Satpal. For others like Pawan Redhu (29), who joined DFS a year ago, this was his first rescue operation of such scale. “Woh manzar bada kasht tha, main aapko kya batau maine kya dekha,” said Redhu.
“I was outside dousing fire when a young man told me there were people inside… There was smoke everywhere,” he said. As men were rushed out of the building, a team would wait to transfer them into an ambulance. The rescue operation continued with firefighters doing 10 such rounds.
Each firefighter does a 24-hour shift, following which they get a day off. Sunil Kumar (35), a fire operator with DFS for eight years, hails from Haryana’s Rohtak and was trained at the fire station in Mandawali.
He said, “I entered the building from the rear. I heard people shouting ‘bhaiya please bacha lo’, and suddenly the voices went quiet… I have never been a part of such a rescue operation in terms of scale. It was traumatising, but our seniors help us cope.”