It’s time to smell the smoke

February 23, 2010: Fire broke out at Carlton Towers, Bangalore. 9 dead, 60 injured.

January 2008: Burrabazar in Kolkata witnessed the worst of its kind fire accident which raged on for nearly one week destroying several shops and establishments.

July 16, 2004 : A school in Kumbakonam is engulfed in fire killing more than 90 innocent children.

June 13, 1997 : Uphaar theatre in Delhi catches fire while a show is in progress. Many lives lost in this tragic fire accident.

This is what the news a few years from now will read, mere statistics of what happened and how many people were injured or dead.

Despite several public spirited voices being raised about the state of fire departments in our cities, nothing seems to have been done to bring about any concrete change.

The Carlton Towers fire incident at (Old) Airport Road is a case in point. According to various media reports on this incident, the building owners had not followed fire safety norms. Most people trapped inside the building were unaware of exit doors of staircases. The emergency exits were said to be blocked. The building is also reported to have improper ventilation which worsened the situation.

View from the 5th floor of Carlton Towers. It is reported that the building has flouted fire safety norms, hampering the rescue operation. Pic: Kiran Jonnalagadda

Fire officials have also reported to have found it difficult to carry out the rescue operation as the building had flouted bye-laws. Carlton towers is said to have a setback far less than the prerequisite, as a result of which the fire brigade did not have adequate space to park their trucks. The absence of water sprinklers, underground water tank and fire exit indicators is also said to have added to the problem.

Trapped on the 5th floor of Carlton towers, survivor tells his story

Kiran Jonnalagadda, whose office is on the 5th floor of Carlton Towers located on HAL Aiport Road, says the fire started around 4 PM. "The fire alarm went off. But we ignored it thinking it was just a drill". A while later, Jonnalagadda and his colleagues noticed smoke outside the building, immediately after which they started to run out.

As the corridors were engulfed with smoke, Jonnalagadda says they came back into their office and locked the door. But later realised that smoke was coming from the vents in the restroom and the pantry. With handkerchiefs for protection from inhaling the smoke, Jonnalagadda and his six colleagues stood near the windows, waving out to onlookers below.

"I couldn’t see the sixth and seventh floors. But I saw four people jump from above", he says. Even as mattresses were laid out by fire tenders, Jonnalagadda says it would not have been possible for them to jump from their floor because of the structure of the building.

More than an hour later, at about 5:30 PM, a fire personnel knocked on their office door and rescued them. "It was really really bad. If we hadn’t realised it was a fire, we would have died".

Jonnalagadda says that Carlton towers does not have any fire exits apart from the regular stairs. Neither are there any sprinklers, he says, adding that they could not get to the fire extinguishers in the corridors because of the smoke.

But this isn’t the first time that such a fire accident has taken place, with norms openly flouted.

If the collective response of our governments to the 2004 Kumbakonam school disaster is anything to go by, the Carlton Towers fire is a stark reminder of how much there is to worry about. A Bangalorean has even had to take the state government to the High Court very recently to ask for status of action regarding safety of local schools.

Ninety innocent lives were lost to the unfortunate fire incident that took place within a school premise in Kumbakonam. Following this incident Advocate Avinash Mehrotra filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Supreme Court to make fire-safety norms mandatory for schools.

On April 13th 2009, the Apex Court ordered implementation of various safety measures against fire and addressing other security concerns of schools within six months. The court also asked the Education Secretaries of each state and union territory to file an affidavit of compliance within one month after installation of fire extinguishing equipment.

In lieu of this order, C J Singh, a citizen of Bangalore filed a PIL before the Karnataka High Court seeking information on the progress made by the State Education Department in ensuring that the Apex Court order was being implemented. The education department was caught unaware and seemed ignorant of such an order.

Fire personnel using a hose pipe to rescue those trapped inside Carlton towers. Pic: Kiran Jonnalagadda

The High Court ordered a notice to the education department, after which they appeared in court, but are yet to notify the Court of what actions have been taken to ensure that the norms are followed. Ten months after the Apex Court’s order there still seems to be no sign of any action being taken by the States.

In a city like Bangalore where almost every street has a high-rise building it is not only shameful but also a matter of grave concern that fire safety norms are not followed. Blame cannot rest solely with authorities either. Flouting happens when both private parties (citizens, builders, firms) collude with regulators to cut costs and maximise built-up-area.

In the aftermath of the Carlton Tower fire and with BBMP elections now imminent, with the city and state governments finally wake up and smell the ‘smoke’?   ⊕

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About Vaishnavi Vittal 139 Articles
Vaishnavi Vittal is a Bangalore-based journalist.

4 Comments

  1. I am an Indian. I am determined that I will not learn until disaster claims the lives of my family members. I do not know how to use scientific methods of disaster management, because I am traditionally trained to think for my family and no one else in the society. By the way, what is society? is it not people getting together for festivals? I cannot resolve the simple problem of traffic congestion in cities. How can any one expect me to resolve the problem of fire & safety or even terrorism in the country? At the best I consult my astrologer. I happy that we have plenty of them. What is science to me??..well..Isn’t it what is called software?….

  2. I hope CM investigates and exposes this completely corrupt process of safety regulations, and the monumental inteptitude of the many DGPs, Commissioners, etc.

  3. Excellent article and timely analysis by the CM team. Sad to know so many failures in the system eventually leading to a tragic story! Do authorities wait for the wake up call all the times? Carlton fire is a wakeup call for sure!

  4. Great write-up. I hope there is now a mass campaign for regular fire-safety drills, quality checks and fire audits like they do in the West. I hope RWAs, Unions, Employee groups rise up against this gross negligence, ineptitude of the Fire Dept and corrupt builders. CM, please continue to expose these issues in the city’s high-rises.

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