When the Bronto Skylift from Connaught Place fire station was called into action to put out the blaze at Hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh, firefighters first ran into trouble figuring out the address. After asking people for directions, they were almost at the spot, but had to take a U-turn because of police barricades. By the time they arrived, three people, including a woman, had jumped off the five-storey building to escape the inferno.
When Station Officer Rajesh Kumar Shukla reached, he saw a woman dangling a child from the fifth floor, hoping that someone from the crowd would catch them both. “We rescued them using the Skylift. I wish the others were as lucky,” said Shukla.
As three fire stations — Connaught Place, Prasad Nagar and Jhansi Road — were called into service, their firefighting operations were hindered by lack of access roads to the hotel; the fire spreading to the common area and staircases due to foam and leather decorations; and a brief shutdown of the skylift.
The first to arrive were firefighters from Prasad Nagar, who began operating the Skylift and tried to gain access to the main entrance, blocked by a plume of smoke and fire.
They doused themselves in water and entered the burning hotel carrying a hose reel. “The temperature was so high our drenched clothes got dry within minutes,” said a fire operator. All this while, trapped guests screamed for help from windows, but when the Skylift reached them, so many climbed on that it stopped working for five minutes.
“We were operating the Skylift at 320 kg capacity and the sheer mass of people climbing onto the lift halted operations. We had to manually start operations,” the operator said.
Station Officer (Jhansi Road) Avtar Singh, with his team of regular and trainee firefighters, gained entry to the second floor when they spotted their first casualty — a charred body lying on the staircase. “We would go inside for two minutes and come back outside. The smoke was so thick we could not operate. I carried that burnt body in a hotel towel and cried,” Singh said. Firefighters said they could not use stretchers as the circular staircase was not wide enough. “I heard a body crunch in the towel when I carried it,” said a firefighter.
Connaught Place firefighters, meanwhile, arrived with another Skylift. Firefighters said they could not gain access to the second and third floors as the blaze travelled its way up though elevator shafts, hampering access to water pipelines adjacent to them. By the time they cleared the fire from the common area, the building’s hydrants and hose reels were on fire, rendering them useless.
With 25 fire tenders pumping water, flames started to lose intensity, but firefighters sustained injuries by nails jutting out of walls after foam decorations melted away.
At the second floor, firefighters saw the charred body of a child. By the time they reached the third floor, bodies were found lying near staircases and outside rooms where the doors had burnt off.
Firefighters atop the Skylift doused the fire on the fourth floor, and found four bodies huddled together in a single room.
With the fire doused and cooling operations underway, Shukla took one final trip to the building. “I saw the body of a man with his head burnt off and skull exposed. I knew I had had enough for one day,” he said.