A massive fire gutted out the National Museum of Natural History post midnight on Tuesday. It took fire services over four hours to douse the blaze with 35 fire engines pressed into service. No casualties were reported.
Large plumes of smoke emanating from the top floor of the FICCI building where the museum is housed, caught the security personnel’s eye at around 1:45 am. A call was made to the fire services and a few engines were rushed in from the Connaught Place fire station. No one was in the building at the time, fire services said.
“My security personnel rang me up and informed me about the smoke. I instructed them to call fire. By then I reached the spot. I also informed all FICCI members who also arrived in some time,” Jagmohan Bhisht, the caretaker in charge of security at the FICCI premises said.
As the fire spread to the lower floors, more fire engines were rushed in. It took the next three and a half hours to bring the fire under control and another three hours of cooling down operations.
“The fire began on the top floor and spread to four floors below. We used 6 cars with hydraulic platforms to douse the fire in the top floors. Other 30 teams were fighting the flames from within the building interiors. Most of the fire fed on the wooden partitions and cabinets where specimens were housed on the museum floors,” Deputy Chief Fire Officer Rajesh Pawar said.
During the operations, for which around 200 fire fighters were rushed in from different parts of the capital, six personnel were left trapped in the building, who inhaled excessive smoke. Their condition is said to be stable.
“Two teams were sent to the top floors from the rear wing of the building. But we had to suspend operations on that side when they gave us an SOS call. We rescued them and called a CATS ambulance. Three fire fighters were sent to RML hospital with complaints of asphyxia. The other three were administered first aid and made to return to rest. All six are stable now,” Pawar said.
The cause of fire is still unknown though the fire spread because of museum specimens and the wood work holding them.
“The wooden partitions to separate different wings of the museum on each of the four floors fed the fire. The specimens, the stuffed animals and the chemicals some specimens were preserved in were all highly combustible. That is why the fire spread so rapidly,” Pawar said.
Fire Services alleged the fire safety measures were ineffective and not functional in the FICCI building, a part of which was rented out to the Ministry of Environment and Forests which established the Museum in 1972.
“The pumps were not working when we needed water. Only hours into the operation did the staff in the premises manage to wrench open an old tank and make water available to us. We managed with the water stored in our fire engines,” Pawar said.
FICCI members denied that there was a lapse on their part. “All fire safety measures were in place. This building is approved and cleared by the Government of India. We host functions for the government and big dignitaries frequently in these premises. There are at least 15 security guards at the premises every night, and around 35 during the day. The guards noticed the fire and called in the authorities. In a fire this big, nothing would work anyway. This fire is a serious case of an accident,” said Rajiv Tyagi, Media Head (FICCI).
Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar reached the spot at around 8:30 am. He announced that a fire safety audit will be conducted for all 34 museums under the Ministry in the city.
“We are assessing the loss. There were thousands of specimens which have been destroyed…This building was rented out to the Ministry by FICCI so we had limitations. We will try to recover what we can,” Javadekar said.
The building, a part of which was under renovation, was sealed by the NDMC later in the day. Police forces and Fire Services have been stationed at the site since 1:45 am.
Established in 1972, the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi is one of two museums focusing on nature in India. It functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests.