Even as the state government ordered a probe into the GST Bhavan fire, a structural audit of the building, conducted about a year ago, had listed parts which were gutted Monday as a “structural hazard”.
The report, submitted by engineers from the Veer Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI), last year had advised the immediate removal of the building’s top two floors – the ninth and the tenth floors – that were added about a decade-and-a-half ago. Auditors had reportedly also found that the building “ill-equipped” to bear the load owing to the additions and alterations introduced later, officials said.
Alarmed by the report’s finding, the state administration had almost immediately decided to raze the top two floors. It also hired office space at Maharashtra Telephone Nigam Limited’s office in South Mumbai six months ago. However, there was some delay in the razing of the floors that caught fire Monday.
Only a portion of the tenth floor had been razed so far, while portions on the ninth floor were still occupied.
A senior official said, “A majority of the records had been shifted either to the lower floors or to the MTNL building. Four desks, including the audit section, were still operational on the ninth floor. About 30 people were on the ninth floor when the fire started. They were evacuated.”
With the fire spreading fast, about 2,200 officials and contractual staff serving on the lower floors were also evacuated.
A fire department official, on condition of anonymity, said the fire safety norms had not been adhered to on the upper floors. “There were many additions and alterations in the interior portions, for which wood and plywood was used liberally. Partitions were arbitrarily erected for creating more seating space,” an official said.
After the state secretariat building had been engulfed in a massive fire in 2012, the fire brigade had advised against excessive use of wood and additions/use of partitions in government offices.
On Monday, the fire that arose in a cabin on the ninth floor quickly spread across two top floors. According to fire officials, wood and heaps of papers had helped fan the fire. The exact cause of the fire is yet to be known.
Officials, meanwhile, claimed that the entire ninth floor was gutted. Documents kept in the audit wing and the three other operational wings on the floor were destroyed. Smoke also affected portions of the tenth floor, while water sprayed to douse the blaze had damaged parts of the eight floor as well. The GST commissioner’s office is also on the eighth floor.
Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who had rushed to the site, meanwhile, said that “a probe into the reasons for the fire will be conducted”. While he admitted that the wood and papers had helped the spread of fire, Pawar said, “Since most of the records were digitised, the damaged documents can be retrieved.”
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