Missed lessons

Print edition : August 13, 2004

Ever since Independence, accidents in buildings, mainly from fires, across the country have caused extensive loss of life and property. Yet hardly any long-term safety measures have been put in place. A look at some of the major incidents over the past four decades.

Madurai, Tamil Nadu April 4, 1964

Location: Saraswathi Vidyasala Higher Elementary School, Maninagaram, Madurai.

Casualties: 36 persons, including 35 girls killed; 139 injured seriously.

The superstructure of the two-storeyed building, which collapsed, was constructed out of brick and mortar on the granite compound wall of a samadhi (tomb).

It was a holiday. Only about 190 girls in the 11-13 age group and studying in Standards VI, VII and VIII out of a total of 500 had come for the special classes being held on all three floors of the building. At about noon, when the girls were about to disperse for lunch, a portion of the superstructure crashed. A few girls on the top floor who managed to move to the other side of the building and raised an alarm. The news of the collapse was communicated to the police control room by a constable of the city police, who was passing by.

Engineers of the Public Works Department said even the basic principles of engineering had not been followed in the construction of the building. Basic safety measures too had been ignored, and no attention was paid to the load and pressure of the walls.

Apparently, the town planning authorities had refused permission to build the school. Yet, the building was completed, and the correspondent of the school, K. Pitchiah Pillai, went in appeal against the decision.

The appeal was turned down by the Director of Town Planning (DTP) and the municipal authorities asked the correspondent to demolish the building. The correspondent appealed again to the DTP stating that he was making the necessary modifications. That appeal was pending disposal at the time of the accident.

Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu July 29, 1979

Location: Touring cinema at Lourdammalpuram, Tuticorin.

Casualties: 46 adults and 32 children were killed, of whom 73 died on the spot and five succumbed to injuries in hospital; 88 people were injured.

The fire broke out around 4-30 p.m. when the matinee show was on. The thatch-roofed cinema with wooden poles and rafters was reduced to ashes.

A sizable section of the fire victims were members of the fishing community. The fire broke out in the women's enclosure, and most of the victims were women and children.

In December 1976, the Tamil Nadu government issued a notification calling for the installation of sufficient numbers of fire extinguishers in all cinema halls. The South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce and the Tamil Nadu Exhibitors' Association resisted this on the grounds of the high cost. The government relented and reduced in February 1978 the extra number of extinguishers it wanted to be installed.

Dabwali, Haryana December 23, 1995

Location: The market town of Dabwali (Sirsa district).

Casualties: Over 500 people killed, mostly children and their parents; over 300 injured.

The devastated venue of the DAV school function in Dabwali, Haryana.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The fire broke out at around 2 p.m. in Rajiv Marriage Palace, a private marriage hall, which was used for the Annual Day Function of the DAV School. Nearly 1,200 children, their parents and teachers attended the function. The blaze swept through the entire pandal, which was covered with a synthetic sheet. The casualties were higher because of the stampede and because there was only one small gate as the exit. The fire was caused by electrical malfunction.

The State government ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident. Chief Minister Bhajan Lal subsequently issued instructions that it be made mandatory for buildings holding such functions to have at least four gates, one on each side, so that people could escape in case of an emergency. He said that the government had decided to constitute two committees to suggest measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

* * * Baripada, Orissa February 23, 1997

Location: Madhuban locality, Baripada town, 275 km from Bhubaneswar.

Casualties: 176 persons, including 26 children and 4 women, burnt to death; of these, 149 died on the spot and 27 succumbed to injuries later; 500 seriously injured.

The accident occurred at 3.30 p.m. in the Madhuban area where a large number of devotees of Swami Nigamananda had gathered for a three-day State-level religious conference. As many as 5,400 delegates, many of them from neighbouring States and Delhi, had registered along with families.

The fire started from one of the temporary sheds constructed for the devotees when most of them were resting after lunch. All the thatched sheds meant for men were gutted within minutes. The sheds meant for women devotees were saved.

The organisers had constructed 40 cottages made of straw and bamboo. Ten cottages housing a bookstall and the office were reduced to ashes within 10 minutes. At least 5,000 people were in the area when the fire began, as it was the last day of the convention and the local unit of the organisation was distributing prasaad. Most of the victims got caught in the fire at the only exit point.

The Orissa government ordered a high-level administrative inquiry into the mishap.

* * * Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu June 7, 1997 Location: Brihadeeswara temple, Thanjavur.

Casualties: 40 killed, 31 of them women and five children; 85 injured.

Flames inside the Brihadeeswara Temple complex.-K. GANESAN

A fire broke out in the yagasala (sacrificial hall) of the Brihadeeswara temple. Most of the victims died after inhaling carbon monoxide, while a few were killed in a stampede. A few died of burns.

Inflammable materials like ghee, condiments and thatched roofs helped the fire spread fast. Only one fire tender near the pandal could be pressed into service. The only entrance was on the eastern side, but because of the narrow gate and the stones at the gateway, many fell and died.

* * * Delhi June 13, 1997 Location: Uphaar Grand cinema in South Delhi. Casualties: 60 dead; many injured.

The cinema hall, with a capacity of 1,053 people, was packed when the fire broke out around 5 p.m. The fire started in the ground floor parking lot and quickly spread to the upper floors. Many in the rear and front stalls of the main hall escaped as ushers quickly opened the far exit gates. Those on the balcony and the upper lounge were trapped, and many people died of asphyxiation. The entire building, besides 20 cars and 25 scooters, were gutted.

The burnt-out parking lot of Uphaar Cinema, in New Delhi.-RAJEEV BHATT

The fire was caused by a short circuit in a transformer in the parking area and spread to the upper floors through air conditioning ducts.

Although the licence for cinema halls is issued by the Delhi Police, it is the responsibility of the Delhi Fire Service to certify, after periodic inspections, that the premises are safe from fire hazards and that mandatory safety measures and fire alarm systems are in place. In the Uphaar incident, the fire was caused by the spilling of highly inflammable oil from a Delhi Vidyut Board transformer. Incidentally, there were complaints of the faulty functioning of the transformer earlier that day and the DVB had attended to the fault.

* * * Erwadi, Tamil Nadu August 6, 2001

Location: Moideen Badusha Mental Home, a pilgrim centre 27 km from Ramanathapuram.

Casualties: 25 mentally ill persons were charred to death. Three died subsequently.

The fire began around 5-10 a.m. when a kerosene chimney lamp fell in the shed. The mental home was thatched. The entire shed was gutted in 10 minutes, before fire tenders reached the spot.

The body of one of the victims of the fire at Erwadi being removed.-K.GANESAN

Charred bodies fettered in chains were all that remained. "Divine chains" were put around the feet of the mentally ill, and so they could not escape. There were 43 mentally ill people on the premises.

The owner of the asylum, Moideen Badusha, his wife Suriya Begum and relatives Rashak and Mumtaj Begum were arrested.

The N. Ramdas Commission, which inquired into the deaths, concluded that the inmates died as they had been fettered and tied to poles and immediate fire aid was absent. "The caretaker of the house concentrated on retrieving their personal belongings, without taking steps to rescue the patients by breaking their chains... Fire engines had to come from Ramanathapuram and Keelakarai... Had the Erwadi fire brigade come immediately, the death of the inmates might have been, to a certain extent, averted," it said.

Subsequent to the fire, the government imposed a ban on keeping patients in fetters.

Of the 571 people rescued, 152 were sent to the Government Institute of Mental Health in Chennai, and 11 were admitted to the Ramanathapuram General Hospital. The rest were returned to the care of their families.

* * * Agra May 24, 2002

Location: Shoe factory in the Jeoni Mandi in Agra.

Casualties: 42 people burnt alive, 10 sustained burn injuries.

Rescuers, including Army and Air Force personnel, retrieved the charred bodies from the two-storey building that collapsed following the fire. Over 100 workers were at the premises when the fire broke out. A fact-finding team of the National Campaign on Labour indicted the owner of the factory, saying that he had ignored safety norms and violated labour laws.

The factory area was like a "tinder box" with hardly any fire or other safety equipment in place, it said.

* * * Srirangam, Tamil Nadu January 23, 2004

Location: Padmapriya Marriage Hall at Srirangam near Tiruchi.

Casualties: 62 killed, including the bridegroom, 23 women and four children; 45 injured.

The fire broke out in the thatched structure put up on the roof of the marriage hall. The hastily assembled structure served as a make-shift venue for the wedding as the main hall downstairs was not felt to be big enough to accommodate all the guests. The fire was fed by the thatch, plastic chairs and clothing materials and spread within minutes, engulfing the entire hall.

The marriage hall in Srirangam, after the fire.-S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

There was also a stampede as guests tried to flee through a narrow staircase in a corner of the hall. Many of the dead could only be identified by the jewellery they wore. The fire broke out owing to the intense heat generated by the video flashgun, which set on fire the decorative materials on the thatched roof of the pandal. Temporary power lines were also drawn from downstairs in a shoddy manner.

The police arrested the owner of the marriage hall, the videographer, the hall manager, the video lightboy, the electrician and the pandal contractor.

Subsequent to the tragedy, fire safety measures were made compulsory in marriage and community halls, with periodic inspections by fire service personnel and the local administration.

Compiled by Mandira Moddie

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