Updated: January 22, 2021 2:13:09 pm
At least five people were killed after a major fire broke out in a five-storeyed under-construction building in one of the campuses of vaccine major Serum Institute of India’s (SIIs) in Pune on Thursday. The incident came as a shock to the nation as SII is one of the two firms leading India’s fight against the novel coronavirus disease.
Calling the incident unfortunate, Dr Cyrus Poonawalla, chairman and managing director, SII, said a few floors of the building have destroyed in the fire. However, this would not affect the production of the Covishield vaccine, he assured.
SII is manufacturing the Covishield vaccine by Oxford-AstraZeneca in India under a license.
How did the fire break out?
The fire broke out in the three upper floors of the newly-constructed six-storey building inside the SII campus. While the cause of fire is yet to be ascertained, fire brigade and police officers said the fire became intense because of the presence of inflammable material like PVC, plastic, plywood and acrylic at the site.
“There was a lot of air conditioning material, including insulation material and objects used for fabrication. There were objects made from PVC, acrylic, plastic, plywood, and wood,” a fire brigade official told indianexpress.com.
The magnitude of the incident could be established by the fact that it took at least ten fire tenders, four additional water tankers, and other equipment to douse the fire. More than 70 fire personnel were involved in the operation.
Who were the people killed in the fire?
The five people who lost their lives were labourers doing welding and air-conditioning jobs at the building but were not the employees of SII. The dead have been identified as Bipin Saroj and Rama Shankar from UP, Sushil Kumar Pandey from Bihar, and Mahendra Ingle and Pratik Pashte, both residents of Pune.
“We were doing the work of AC insulation on the fourth floor when we suddenly saw smoke rising. Within a few seconds, the smoke became so dense that we were unable to see anything. We ran towards the window and jumped out. I was badly hurt but I managed to save my life,” said 21-year-old Avinash Saroj, whose brother Bipin Saroj was among the five dead.
Incidentally, it was Bipin who had first raised the alarm about the fire.
The bodies were discovered only after fire brigade personnel were able to enter the building.
Meanwhile, the Serum Institute will offer compensation of Rs 25 lakh to each of the families of the fire victims, in addition to the mandated amount as per the norm, Dr Cyrus Poonawalla told The Indian Express.
Will this affect the production of Covishield vaccine?
The fire broke out in SIIs Manjari facility, where the firm’s vaccine against Covid-19 ‘Covishield’ is being produced. However, the incident would not affect the production of the vaccine as the building where the fire broke out is one km from the Covishield vaccine manufacturing unit.
The Manjri plant itself is 3 km from the institute’s main plant at Hadapsar where Covishield is being manufactured.
The lower floors of the building have laboratory facilities for SII’s rotavirus and BCG vaccines. The upper floors where the fire broke out were unoccupied. The production units and laboratories for the Covid-19 vaccine are located on another SII campus nearby.
After the news of the incident broke out, Poonawalla took to Twitter to reassure all governments and common people that the mishap would not affect the production of Covishield.
“This was a new building at the Special Economic Zone campus at Manjri. It was on the verge of completion and the facility was built to manufacture extra quantities of BCG and Rotavirus vaccines. We do not know the cause of the fire and will assess the extent of the damage soon,” Poonawalla told The Indian Express.
However, the fire did harm the production of BCG, Rotavirus vaccine and other products manufactured by the firm.
What does the police say?
Pune police officials said that a probe will be conducted in the case, in which possibilities of criminal negligence leading to death will be probed, along with that of the fire being a deliberate act of sabotage. In the initial stage, the Crime Branch of Pune City Police will conduct a parallel probe along with the team from Hadapsar police station, which has jurisdiction over the area.
Deputy Commissioner of Police Namrata Patil said, “After every such major incident of fire, an investigation is conducted. It will happen in this case too. There is loss of life and damage to property on two floors of the building. As part of the procedure, a case of accidental death — pending probe into causes — will be registered. We will decide the course of legal action after getting the findings of this preliminary probe.”
When asked whether there will be a probe to ascertain if there was foul play behind the fire, Pune Police Commissioner Amitabh Gupta said, “Every possible angle will be checked. We are not ruling out anything at this stage.”
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar visited the Manjari campus on Thursday and said an audit will be conducted of the building where the fire had broken out to ascertain the exact reason behind the incident,
He also ordered a probe to find out if all the guidelines that an industrial unit needs to follow and precautions that a construction site needs to undertake were being taken.
“It will be premature to speculate over the reason behind the fire at this moment. We will know about it by Friday after an audit of the site by the officials concerned…,” Pawar told reporters after the brief visit.
NCP leader Sharad Pawar called the incident an accident and ruled out allegations of sabotage behind the fire. “It is not right for us to speak today. But we have absolutely no doubt about the integrity of experts, scientists working at Serum. This is an accident,” he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the incident ‘unfortunate’ and prayed for the recovery of the injured.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed his sadness at the loss of life in the fire. “We, obviously, are saddened by the loss of life and send our condolences to the families impacted, and we hope the fire is fully investigated,” Stephane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General, said at the daily press briefing on Thursday.
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