Of the 43 who were killed in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi fire on Sunday, at least five were minors, including Mehboob. Authorities expect the number to rise.
The 13-year-old, hailing from a village in Bihar’s Samastipur, arrived in Delhi six months ago and made bags on the second floor of the residential building housing illegal manufacturing units, for around Rs 500 a month.
Mehboob’s relative Muhammad Hakeem said as the boy was still under “training”, he did not receive regular wages. “When I asked him how he ate, he said he would sometimes go to a hotel.”
“Nobody wants to work in these conditions,” Hakeem added, but Mehboob, who would have turned 14 on December 31, “had no choice”. “His family is very poor. His father works as a labourer in Bihar… The family thought working would make him tough.”
A person who lives near the factory contacted Hakeem, who lives in Hari Nagar, to tell him about the fire. Hakeem identified Mehboob, from among the bodies at Lady Hardinge Medical College, with the help of the 13-year-old’s Aadhaar card photo on his phone.
Among those who remained missing till Sunday evening was 15-year-old Sehmat, who also came to Delhi a few months ago from Samastipur and worked with Mehboob. A relative rushed in from Sonepat to try look for the teenager. The family back in Samastipur does not have a phone.
Sehmat’s father Mohammad Ainul said, “There is chaos in the hospitals. So many people leave the village for work… We are poor and have little choice.”
At Lok Nayak Hospital, Furkan Salim talked about how his cousin Musharraf Ali, 32, had called up his friend Shobit and asked him to take care of his family and children, gasping for breath as he lay dying.
During the seven-minute conversation, Ali sobbed, “Bhaiya khatam hone wala hoon aaj main. Time kam bacha hai, bhaagne ka rasta nahin hai (Brother, I am going to die today. There is little time and no way to escape)… Take care of my home. You are all they have now. Mar bhi jaunga to wahin rahunga (Even if I die, my thoughts will remain with them).”
Furkan said Ali kept repeating that no help was coming. A native of Kanda village in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, Ali came to Delhi around three years ago.
Jameel Ahmad, 65, said his elder son Akram too called him in his final hours, around 5 am. Ahmad, who lives in Moradabad, got up after two missed calls and said when he called Akram back, the 38-year-old pleaded with him to save him.
Ahmad said he started calling relatives and friends in Delhi to rush to the factory, where his other son, Mohd Imran (35), too worked. Around 12.30 pm, Ahmad got the news that both his sons were dead. Standing outside the mortuary of Lok Nayak Hospital, Ahmad mumbled, “Woh bahut dara hua tha (Akram was so scared).”
An inconsolable Noor Jehan spent the whole day looking for her father Aniul Haque, 65, and brother-in-law Mohd Abbas, 35, who made caps in one of the units. Wandering around disoriented at Lok Nayak Hospital with husband Mohd Kalim, the native of Sitamarhi in Bihar said, “We are not being allowed either in the ward or mortuary.”
By evening, they had got to know that both Haque and Abbas were dead. The survivors fought both the memory of the night and the pain of losing loved ones. Tears flowing freely, Shazid, 23, was being consoled by a friend at Lady Hardinge. A native of Bihar, Shazid was sleeping when the fire broke out. Among the dead was his brother Wajid, 28. Both had been working on the premises for two-three years.
“They were sleeping in the same room. He managed to get out but couldn’t save his brother,” said the friend.
Others recalled struggling to stay conscious. Asrar Alam, 19, who came to Delhi from Bihar four months ago, was asleep on a third-floor room with 18 other men when he saw smoke pour in. “Many of them fell unconscious. I kept lying as it got too dark due to the smoke,” said Alam. “It was in the morning, I’m not sure when, that I saw a torch and raised my hand. Someone picked me up.”
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Alam was brought to Lady Hardinge around 7.30 am. Afzal too was among the survivors from the third floor. “There were 10-12 people sleeping alongside me. I covered my face with a cloth and managed to find a hole in a window, and stood near it to breathe.” A firefighter broke the window to rescue him around 5.30 am.
A medical officer at Lady Hardinge said many of the victims suffered carbon monoxide poisoning. “The level in Alam’s blood was around 6, where the normal level is around 1.5,” he said.
Some people in the area took victims to their homes and took care of them till ambulances arrived. Suhail, who lives near the factory, said, “Some men were shifted to my house via the roof. After some time, even I had to leave my house because of the smoke.”
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Another resident, Asif Ali, said he woke up to screams. “I saw a teenaged boy crying. I picked him up, behind him flames rose from the building,” he said.
Among the saddest cases was of Shariq Hussain, 28, who called up his wife, who is in the ninth month of her pregnancy, in Madhubani to tell her he won’t make it. Elder brother Zakir Hussain said he told her, “Aakhri baar baat ho rahi hai (this is our last conversation). The building is on fire, I am caught inside, won’t be able to get out.”