A day after nine first responders were killed in a devastating fire at the Eastern Railway headquarters on Strand Road, the Kolkata Police on Tuesday lodged an FIR against “the responsible authority/person(s)”. The police also set up a seven-member Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the incident.
The police’s announcements came even as a team of forensic experts examined the building and said prima facie the fire appears to have occurred because of “overload of power” and “malfunction of electricity”.
“On the incident of fire, a case has filed at the Hare Street police station. The FIR has been registered under IPC Section 304A (causing death by negligence) and Sec 11J and 11L of the West Bengal Fire Services Act. The Detective Department will conduct the investigation,” Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) Murlidhar told The Indian Express.
The police inquiry will be conducted in parallel with a high-level probe ordered by Railway Minister Piyush Goyal. Principal Chief Safety Officer Dr Jaideep Gupta will head the inquiry panel. The other members of the committee are Principal Chief Signal and Telecommunication Engineer Ajay Kumar, Inspector General-cum-Principal Chief Security Commissioner AN Mishra and Principal Chief Electrical Engineer VB Vishwakarma.
Four of those who died in the fire were railway employees. They were identified as Railway Protection Force (RPF) constable Sanjay Sahni (36), deputy chief commercial manager Partha Sarathi Mondal (59), senior commercial clerk Shrawan Pandey (56) and senior technician Sudip Das (57). Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) Amit Kumar Bhawal (45), and fire officials Girish Dey (40), Gaurav Bej (35), Aniruddha Jana (29) and Biman Purakait (24) were also killed in the blaze.
During the search-and-rescue operation, railway employee Utpal Acharya suffered injuries and was admitted to the BR Singh Hospital in Sealdah. He is stable at present.
Meanwhile, expressing condolences to the families of the deceased, Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved an ex gratia payment of Rs 2 lakh for the next of kin of each of the victims. Those seriously injured will receive Rs 50,000. On Monday night, addressing reporters at the accident site, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced Rs 10-lakh compensation for the next of kin of the deceased.
“Pained beyond words by the extremely tragic fire accident at a building in Kolkata. My deep sympathy and condolences for the bereaved families. I wish for speedy recovery of the injured,” President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted on Tuesday.
The fire erupted on the 13th floor of the 14-storied building at 6.10 pm. It was brought under control by 11.00 pm and doused completely late at night. State Fire Minister Sujit Bose has said that the first responders were going up in an elevator for the search-and-rescue operation when they got trapped.
According to a senior police official and senior fire department officials The Indian Express spoke to, lack of planning was one of the reasons behind the high toll. The server room that stores all the data related to the online ticket booking service of Eastern Railway is located on the 13th floor. It also houses the chief signal and telecom engineer (construction) department. By the time the fire erupted, railway employees had mostly left office. On being alerted, the fire department and officials from the Hare Street police station arrived at 6.30 pm.
The nine who died took two lifts to go upstairs. According to police and fire department officials, there is a possibility that they “couldn’t assess the intensity of the fire” and took the elevators to check what was happening on the 13th floor. Their bodies were recovered there around 10 pm.
Senior officials at the Lalbazar police headquarters said Partha Sarathi Mondal and Shrawan Pandey went up in one lift and were the first to reach the 13th floor. The primary autopsy report revealed that they suffocated to death after inhaling carbon monoxide. Seven people, including ASI Amit Bhawal and the firefighters, travelled upstairs in another lift. As soon as they reached the floor and manually opened the elevator door, they were trapped by a ball of fire. One body was completely charred while the others died of burn injuries.
Those present at the spot said the rescuers might have made an “impulsive” decision to go up to the 13th floor to rescue those feared trapped.
“Heavy smoke and fireballs were coming out of a window. We were together. But there were too many vehicles outside the building and I was not getting proper parking, so he [Amit Bhawal] got off and I stayed back to park the vehicle. He went inside and took the lift and later his body was recovered,” said Sanjib Sarkar, Bhawal’s colleague from the Hare Street station.
“In case of a fire, using stairs, and not elevators, is advised. Elevators are normally tied to a fire detection system and are not available to occupants once the alarm sounds. Maybe the alarm system wasn’t working,” said a police official outside the SSKM Hospital morgue.
When asked why Bhawal took the lift, another policeman said, “He was with firefighters. If, despite training, they didn’t know, what was Amit’s mistake? He was just following them. He lost his life to save others.”