“When we broke open the doors and rescued, the people inside offices, told us that we had come like angels amidst the thick smoke to rescue them,” says Mudaseer Hussain, one of the firemen from the Karnataka State Fire and Emergency Services (KSFES). To hundreds of people stuck in the Carlton Tower fire on 23 February 2010, they came as angels to save their lives.
Firemen from the KSFES acted swiftly to rescue hundreds of people stranded at the high-rise and prevented further loss of lives. Mudaseer Hussain, 36, Venkatesha T, 25, K T Prakash, 48, were three of the firemen awarded ‘Firemen of the Year’, an annual award instituted by the Beyond Carlton Trust, formed by family of the victims and survivors of the Carlton Tower fire tragedy. In a conversation with Citizen Matters, the three heroes share details about the rescue operation at Carlton, their lives and how fulfilling it is to work as firemen.
Know where the staircase is
“There would have been no casualty if people knew where staircase was. They could have simply walked out. Just like we see what is around when we move in to a new house. It is necessary to know such detail when we start work at a new place, especially if it is a high rise building.” – K T Prakash
A native of Allipura village in Gowribidnur taluk, Hussain has lived most of his life in Bangalore. “My father, Mir Saad Ali, was a police sub-inspector in Bangalore and I always aspired to get in to the military or the police. Without my father’s knowledge, I applied for the post of a fireman and when I was selected he was overjoyed. I joined the fire service at the age of 21 in 1996”, says Hussain, a father of four. After serving in Bharathinagar in Mandya, he was posted to Bangalore in 2006. “I love reading Shakespeare and Kuvempu in my free time and I make it a point that I spend at least half-an-hour in the library every day,” says Hussain.
Venkatesh, a native of Thenkanahalli in Channapattana, the youngest among the three awardees, joined the fire service in 2008 and was posted to South Fire Station in 2009 after completing training. The 25 year old enjoys hanigavana (short poems) and works of Kannada poet G P Rajaratnam. “I wanted to join the military but did not have proper guidance. After doing odd jobs in Bangalore for three years I felt fire service was a good option.”
The voices of Mudaseer Hussain and Venkatesh become animated when they speak of the fateful day. Both, firemen from the South Fire Station near Mayo Hall reached Carlton Towers within minutes of receiving the call of distress. Mudaseer says, “We set out on our ‘Agni’ motorcycle, equipped with mist technology immediately.” Agni is an Enfield Bullet motorcycle, customised to carry fire extinguishers which use water mist technology that is more effective than water of the same volume. “People who were stranded were understandably hysterical but it added to the difficulty of the rescue operation. A woman on the second floor refused to come out with us even though she was suffering from asthma it took a lot to coax her to come with us,” said Venkatesh.
A little sensitivity please
“We had trouble getting to spot as people gathered around Carlton and did not give us way quickly. We could have reached earlier and maybe even have prevented people from jumping to their deaths” – K T Prakash
As reinforcements arrived, the two firemen could relax as they had inhaled a substantial amount of smoke even with all the safety gear. “Not knowing what kind of fire were dealing with scared us, especially on the second floor where there was a heavy blanket of smoke”, says Venkatesh. It took them three days to recuperate from the smoke they had inhaled.
The camaraderie between the two firemen is visible when Hussain, the more experienced of the two, says, “It was a dangerous operation, we did not know what kind of fire we were dealing with but I asked Venkatesh to stay behind me as he is still young and I felt he should not risk his life too much.”
For K T Prakash from the Jayanagar Fire Station, it was a childhood dream for K T Prakash to become a fireman. “I grew up in a small village called Kuntachikkanahalli in Gowribidnur Taluk. As a child I was fascinated by any fire tenders passing by and wanted to become a fireman when I grew up. However, my father, a school teacher then, said it was too dangerous to take it up as a career.” One of seven children, Prakash had to fend for himself from a young age. He came to Bangalore in 1980 to work as a daily wage labourer having completed tenth standard, for five rupees a day.
When the factory he was working in shut down in 1994, he was forced to look for other jobs quickly as he had a wife and child to support. “I got selected to join the police and the fire service at the same time but I always felt that as a fireman I would be able to save more lives. Since it was also my childhood dream, I went ahead and joined the fire service.” He served in Chintamani, a town in Chikkaballapur till 2004 and was then posted to Bangalore. A father of two, Prakash says he is blessed with a good family, colleagues and a job that gives him immense satisfaction. He becomes a little sentimental when he says, “You can never put a value to life. It is an honour to serve the people as a fireman.”
Better equipped to handle fire
Mudaseer Hussain says that the department is now equipped with more sophisticated technology to deal with different kinds of fires and emergencies. “Unlike old times when water was hosed irrelevant of the type of fire, we deal with fires differently now. For example, if it’s a fire caused by electricity, we cannot use water because it might get us electrocuted. In industrial fires caused by chemicals such as thinners, using water is not effective. We are more knowledgeable and equipped to deal with them effectively.”
Talking about February 23, 2010 he says the smoke had thickened considerably and people had climbed to the eighth and the ninth floor by the time his division arrived. “Glass doors were electronically locked and because we did not have access cards, we had to break them open. More than a hundred people were stranded on the eighth floor. It was the most dangerous experience for me,” says Prakash.
It was while bringing down an unconscious victim that Prakash suffered a slip disc. “At the time of rescue, I did not realise the extent of my injuries. Our only goal was to save lives”, he says. Prakash saved the lives of two women after resuscitating artificially. “That I could save those two lives I consider it to be the proudest moment of my life.” Th injury meant that he was in physiotherapy for several weeks and it took him six months before he could perform his duties properly. “The support I received from my colleagues and superiors was overwhelming. They provided me with an ambulance to go to the hospital for my physiotherapy and ensured I wasn’t under any stress till recovered completely.”
“Fire stations usually have living quarters nearby so we not only work together but live together. We are like one big family. We trust each other with our lives as we work in situation where if we don’t look out for each other, we could lose our lives”, says Prakash.
The three firemen although elated at receiving the award, are humble when they say they would not have been able to do the kind of work they did if it were not for support from their colleagues and superiors. “While we rush to fight the fire, our superiors are right behind us, keeping a watch over us so that no harm befalls us”, says Prakash. Venkatesh says that they feel proud to receive this award and that it comes from the citizens, it gives them more joy. “Usually awards are given to more experienced firemen I do not really know why they gave the award to me” he says.