As an earth mover started removing debris from the rubble and firefighters cordoned off the area, Chandar Khera stood behind a yellow tape, stunned. Hoping to salvage something from the charred remains of his shop, he moved a step forward and pointed to the firemen, before breaking down in tears.
“I saw it collapse before my eyes. It takes decades to build a business and it was all gone, destroyed by the blaze in a minute,” he said as other shopkeepers consoled him.
He said that in 2006, his shop was gutted in a similar incident. “There was no structural damage to the building then. Fate has dealt us a bad hand. Zero ho gya sab. We will have to start from scratch,” he said.
Several shops, selling school bags, tarpaulin and raincoats, and a car were gutted after a fire broke out in three buildings in North Delhi’s Azad market on Saturday morning. One of the main buildings, where the fire broke out, collapsed, said fire department officials, adding that no casualties were reported. Police said five people suffered injuries after the fire caused a cylinder blast in an adjoining shop.
Khera owned two shops by the name of ‘Peshawar Bag Emporium’ in the building which collapsed. “I started selling bags and umbrellas in 1991. Before me, my father used to run his business from these shops. I got a call about the fire and rushed here at 5 am. The entire three-storey building was on fire. Then, it suddenly came down,” he said.
His wife Renu sat on a stool on a pavement across from the road where their shop once stood. She broke down several times as rescue teams removed the debris. “Sab chala gaya (Everything is lost),” she said, as friends and family members comforted her.
Shopkeepers whose shops were burnt stood huddled across the collapsed building, trying to make sense of the tragedy and its aftermath. The blast and the intensity of the fire, they said, may have melted the pillars of the building and damaged its structure and led to the collapse.
Many said that a short circuit in wires in an electricity pole, behind the main building, caused the fire, which engulfed its three storeys. A cylinder blast in an adjoining shop, which had welding material, caused splinters to spread across the alley, engulfing a car and another shop selling polyester fabric, they said.
That shop belonged to Ankit Bagri and had been his livelihood for six years. “My shop in the adjacent building and the godown has been burnt. I don’t know what I will do now,” he said.
Ashish Kharbanda, a shopkeeper, said, “At least 80 per cent of my shop has been burnt. The total loss is estimated to be over Rs 60 lakh. Fortunately, the fire did not spread to the adjacent shop, which had paint thinner material. Otherwise, the fire could have engulfed the entire market and some houses on the upper floors of the shop.”
Prem Wadhwa, president, Azad Market Traders Association, said, “Some people who were on their way to namaz suffered minor injuries as they were passing by. They all raised an alarm and informed officials and helped in putting out the fire. The government should do something about loose electricity wires. It could cause a catastrophe.”
Fire department officials said they received a call around 4.45 am. Ten fire tenders were rushed to the spot and the fire was brought under control by 7.30 am.
Atul Garg, Delhi Fire Services chief, said, “The exact cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. In total, three buildings were affected and one building collapsed. It is suspected that a short circuit in wires behind the building led to the fire. A cylinder blast may have caused that building to collapse.”
Police said they received information at 4.40 am. “Disaster management teams and JCBs were called to remove the debris of the collapsed building. Legal action is being initiated,” said DCP (North) Sagar Singh Kalsi.