An early morning blaze in a five-storey, 46-room Karol Bagh hotel left 17 people dead Tuesday, in what is among the biggest fire tragedies in New Delhi since the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire that claimed 59 lives.
The fire at Hotel Arpit Palace, which broke out on the first floor around 2.30 am, travelled upward and quickly turned the establishment into a death trap, with a majority of people dying of asphyxia.
The first call to the fire department, however, was made almost two hours later at 4.35 am, and by the time fire tenders reached the hotel, precious time had been lost, “damage was done and the fire was full blown”, said the Delhi Fire Service chief G C Mishra.
Mayor of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, Adesh Gupta said that the hotel’s emergency exit — a narrow, shuttered door opening into a back alley — was locked at the time of the blaze.
All boxes ticked, only on paper
On paper, Hotel Arpit Palace checked all the boxes on fire safety, including a fire department certificate in 2017. But the blaze is indicative of how a once-in-three year check is farcical. The hotel had a fire escape but it was locked.
DCP (central) Mandeep Singh Randhawa said police had arrested the general manager, Rajender Singh and manager, Vikar Kumar. “The hotel owner is absconding and we are looking for him. After an initial investigation, we have found several lapses, especially their fire exit door. The case has been transferred to the Crime Branch,” he said.
According to officials, while some hotel staff fled, others tried to contain the blaze themselves but failed. What also led to a delay were police barricades blocking the fire tenders’ route, and overloading of the hydraulic lift because of which it stopped functioning for about five minutes.
In a report prepared for the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Delhi Police has said that 37 rooms were occupied by 53 guests, including people from Myanmar, Afghanistan, the UK and Cambodia.
Fire service officials said five fire tenders were initially rushed to the spot and more called in when officers realised the magnitude of the blaze. It took 27 fire tenders around four hours to douse the flames, with a majority of people being rescued by breaking open room windows, which firefighters reached using Bronto Skylifts.
Those rescued were shifted to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Lady Hardinge Medical College and BLK Hospital.
“I was sleeping when I felt suffocated. I woke up to find my room filled with smoke and screaming in the hotel. I forced open the room’s window, and fortunately saw fire officials, who rescued me using a ladder,” said Prudhviraj Panda K, assistant manager finance with Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited, who had come from Andhra Pradesh and was staying in the hotel.
Those rescued from the hotel claimed that before the fire, they had suffered minor electric shocks every time they switched on an appliance, and experienced power outages, a senior fire official told The Indian Express.
What perhaps added to the toll was the structure of the hotel, officials said — a wooden, circular staircase; upholstery on the walls that caught fire easily; and lift shafts next to the stairs through which the smoke travelled upwards. Most occupants found themselves virtually trapped, with no way down or up, and windows of several rooms difficult to pry open, officials said.
Officials said that the hotel had extensive woodwork and some windows were reinforced with tempered glass, which guests could not open, and fled from their rooms rather than risk suffocation.
At RML hospital, where post mortems of seven bodies were conducted Tuesday, doctors said five people died of asphyxia and two others died of burn injuries.
The “fire started from a shaft which carries all wiring”, said fire chief Mishra, adding that “extensive damage was found around shafts on each floor”. A majority of the casualties were on the third and fourth floors, which were largely gutted.
The fire soon spread to the roof, engulfing a fibre-sheet canopy and tables and chairs placed on the terrace. While the hotel had obtained a fire safety certificate, valid for three years, in December 2017, it had no mention of terrace seating, and stated that “the fifth floor is closed with a brick wall”.
According to police, the licence of the hotel is in the name of Shardendu Goel, a resident of Karol Bagh. Police have registered a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and attempt to commit culpable homicide (Sections 304 and 308 of the IPC) against unidentified persons at the Karol Bagh police station. No arrests have been made so far.
“It was initially reported as a medium category fire. As per eyewitnesses, hotel staff tried to douse it themselves, failing which they called Delhi Fire Service. Once fire officials reached, it was evident that the fire had started some time ago,” said Chief Fire officer, Atul Garg. According to fire officials, the hotel had fire extinguishers and hose reels, but the hotel staff were unable to use them.