At 2.50 am on Tuesday, Manoj Sharma and Avatar Singh’s team of firefighters entered the blazing National Museum of Natural History. They were the only six of nearly 200 personnel pressed into service to be trapped in the fire that gutted the museum.
Past the raging flames, the six men, armed with water hoses, had reached the landing between the second and the third floors of the museum. Yash Pal, a leading firefighter, said, “We were not expecting flames at the stairs… A sudden blast of hot air and fire hit us. Three of us managed to get out.”
Manoj Sharma, Yash Pal and Ram Pal found themselves on one side of the flames on the third floor. Ram Pal managed to run over to their side while Avatar Singh, Pradeep Ahluwalia and Rajesh were stranded on the second floor.
“We began retreating into the museum wings. We were blindly feeling our way, going by instinct. We broke down a wooden partition, then another and then the door to a storeroom. There we found a window that looked out onto the premises,” Manoj Sharma said.
“We called our men on the ground… A skylift hydraulic machine stationed on our side of the building took us to safety,” Sharma said.
Meanwhile, Avatar Singh and his team ran back up, cornered by smoke and heat. “When we were trying to find our way out, a flex lining one of the cabinets fell on us. We brushed it aside and kept moving… The smoke and heat was choking us but luckily we found a vent in the wall. It was the side of the building facing Tansen Marg,” said Avatar Singh.
“We had no one to give us cover or rescue us… and had no communication unlike Manoj Sharma’s team. We broke glass and crumbling hot metal and caught hold of iron scaffolding, which was shored up against the building’s wall. We slid down that and then a drain pipe,” said Avatar Singh.
Pradeep suffered cuts on his head, shoulder and legs while Rajesh suffered burns on his thumb. An ambulance on standby was opened up and oxygen was administered to the men, all asphyxiated. They were rushed to RML hospital and sent home after treatment.
“It is part of our duty. I have been stuck in five such situations over the last 30 years of service… One is never prepared… to fight, we are trained to escape or send SOS signals. It is all in the hands of god. We found our way out of the building in time and that saved us,” said Avatar Singh.