Wires hanging from ceilings, trays with rotting food outside rooms, and a sole sandal on the parapet of the terrace — Karol Bagh’s Hotel Arpit Palace is filled with macabre reminders of Tuesday’s fire, which claimed 17 lives.
The hotel, started in 1993 by Rakesh Goel, has 46 rooms, a banquet hall, a kitchen in the basement and one on the terrace accompanied by a restaurant, and a bar on the ground floor. It was in 2015 that Rakesh’s brother, Shardendu, replaced him as the hotel’s director. “So far, we have found that all licences of the hotel were in Shardendu’s name, who is absconding. The manager told us Rakesh was in Doha for a vacation when the fire broke out.” Lookout circulars have been issued against both brothers, Additional CP (crime) Rajiv Ranjan said. While Rakesh was arrested on Saturday, police are looking for his brother.
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The Indian Express spoke at length to investigators, forensic experts, firefighters and survivors to recreate the hotel’s interior and the reconstruct what transpired early Tuesday morning.
Reception: On entering the hotel, the signs of Tuesday’s fire are scarce. On the right is the reception, with two pink leatherite chairs and a wooden panel with 11 Ganeshas poised peacefully, while on another wall are “certificates of excellence” the hotel has received from food and travel websites.
Opposite the reception is a faded floral sofa, and behind that a glass window with the words ‘Bar & Restaurant’ written on it. On the right side of the reception is a room with electricity meters. Next to it is the sole lift, adjacent to a narrow wooden staircase — which now has charred wooden panels on both sides.
First information about the fire reached the reception around 3 am Tuesday, when a Patiala-based couple staying in room 109 on the first floor called them about a “short-circuit” in the air-conditioner. “Assistant manager Vikas Kumar (21), who has been arrested, told us he received the call about the fire and rushed to the room with hotel supervisor Lal Chand (47) to extinguish it. After reaching the first floor, they removed two fire extinguishers perched on a wall next to the staircase, and tried to douse the flames. However, the pillows and bedsheets quickly caught fire. While the couple escaped, the blaze spread outside the room,” said an investigating officer.
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First Floor: Realising the intensity of the situation, Kumar and Chand started knocking on the doors of 37 rooms occupied by 53 guests at the hotel. No fire call was made at the time, though, with the fire department receiving the first call only at 4.35 am.
Mohd Nahiya (27), a tourist from Bangladesh, was among those who woke up as hotel staff banged on doors: “Around 3.30 am, I was fast asleep when I heard loud knocking and someone shouting ‘bhaago bhaago’. I opened the door and saw the gallery filled with smoke. My cousin and I took our bags and ran downstairs… we saw utter chaos — guests panicking, rushing from their rooms.”
A forensic expert who has made several visits to the hotel said the fire started in room 109, when the couple “probably switched on the AC at night as it was stuffy and the room, in the absence of a window, had no ventilation. There was a short-circuit, perhaps because the AC was not serviced”.
The room was gutted, with the fire engulfing everything in its way. It is one of two rooms at the hotel that suffered such high damage. “The whole room is unrecognisable — the mattress, the commode in the toilet, the walls. The fire hardly touched room 108, which is interconnected to this room,” said an officer.
The layout of each floor, investigators said, is a glaring example of trying to stuff as many rooms as possible in a tight space. The hotel is pentagon-shaped, and the first floor has 13 rooms, including one that has been turned into an office space.
A flight of stairs takes one to the first floor, which is split into two galleries. On the left are six rooms with windows facing the main road. At the end of this corridor, a dusty hose reel hangs on the wall. The middle of the floor has three interconnected “family rooms” that have no windows. On the right side of the floor are four rooms with windows facing the back alley. At the end of this corridor is the emergency exit staircase. But since the entire stairway was blocked with cartons of vegetables and laundry equipment, it was practically useless.
Second floor: The layout of the second floor is the same as the first floor, minus one room. Three of a family of 13 from Kochi died on this floor — P Nalini Amma (84), her son P C Vidhyasagar (59) and her daughter Jayashree P C (53). In the room adjacent to the victims, Amma’s son P C Somshekharan (57) broke the window using a chair.
“First the smell entered the room, then the smoke. I opened the door and the gallery was filled with smoke. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see anything, so I went back inside. The fire team rescued me but my sister, who raised the alarm, died… so did my mother who was found in the bathroom. They couldn’t open or break the windows,” said Somshekharan.
The family was in town for a wedding, and were packing at the time of the incident as they were to leave for Haridwar.
Third floor: Hotel Arpit Palace — one of the tallest buildings in the vicinity — is on the main road. On each floor, except the first, the Goels had made space for a glass windowpane adjacent to the staircase, with a view of the bustling surroundings.
“When the wooden panels caught fire, people tried breaking this glass to either jump or scream for help. There are signs of struggle on the glass, like someone hit it repeatedly,” said an investigator.
Just like room 109, room 312 was entirely gutted. What set this room apart was an abundance of luxe woodwork on the walls.
“No other room had such excessive woodwork, this was probably the hotel’s super deluxe room. When this woodwork caught fire, it burnt down completely — the wardrobe, the decorative wooden panel on the wall above the bed, the mattress,” said an investigator.
Outside another room on this floor lay plates of unfinished food, left behind by a guest a few hours before the blaze.
Across the floor, the walls are lined with soot and wires hang practically everywhere.
Fourth floor: Rabia Jusafbhai Memon (53) landed in Delhi from Surat on Monday night, and was put in a room on the first floor. “Vikas told us she requested to be moved to another room as she didn’t like the ambience. She was shifted to a room on the fourth floor. The third and fourth floors were worst hit as the fire travelled upwards,” said a police officer.
The advocate from Surat didn’t survive — her body was burnt to a point that it took relatives several hours at the RML hospital to confirm her identity. “When we removed her body, we thought it was a woman in her 20s and identified her as such,” said an officer of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority. Memon’s colleague was rescued.
The fourth floor plan is the same: pentagon-shaped, 12 rooms, a lift, and a blocked emergency exit. “There is no signage to indicate where the emergency exit is. It’s highly possible the guests didn’t even know which direction to run. Two bodies were found near the emergency exit — they died of suffocation. Not only was the exit obstructed, it was also locked downstairs,” said a police officer.
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Terrace: “Yahan toh har hafte party hoti thi,” said a business owner about the hotel’s terrace, adding that it came up around 10 years ago. The terrace was open to everyone — guests as well as outsiders looking for a quick drink or a snack. “Vikas said the open terrace concept was popular with foreign tourists,” said an officer.
A haunting image of the tragedy is the roof engulfed in flames. The reason, officials said, was a fibre sheet to protect it from the rain and sun. On the terrace are hollowed out frames of wooden chairs and tables, an illegally built kitchen, tall lamps and potted plants.
While some guests managed to reach the terrace as the fire raged, the melting fibre sheet left them with no place to go. Two people jumped off the terrace to save themselves — hotel chef Tara Ram (43) and IRS officer from Panchkula, Suresh Kumar Kashyap (52). Both died. “There was a room on the terrace for the staff. That’s where Tara Ram was sleeping. Some people, like Kashyap, rushed to the terrace to save themselves, but it was a bigger trap,” said an officer.
As Ram jumped, falling to his death, he left behind something on the boundary wall: A single sandal, now blackened.