After blaze, chilly night under open sky

Kolkata: 21 Jan, 2019 (Times of India)

Residents Recount A Night Of Horror As Devastating Blaze Engulfs Gariahat Building, Rages On For Almost 12 Hours

Kolkata:Seventy-eight-year-old Shefali Bhattacharya sat petrified on the pavement of Rashbehari Avenue on Sunday morning, clutching onto her 13-year-old granddaughter Barsha, even as firefighters continued their operation in Gurudas Mansion in the background, trying to put out flames in pockets, dense exhaust fumes from inside and pore in water to cool down the structure. The building, which housed Traders Assembly, Adi Dhakeswari, a few other shops and several residential homes, caught fire in the dead of the night, around 1am on Friday.

Even as all the residents were safely evacuated, the entire ground floor—shops were located there—and parts of the first and second floors of 161 B, Rash Behari Avenue were gutted. “I must have done something good in life to be alive today,” said Bhattacharya. Recuperating from a fractured knee, she could barely walk, let alone climb down the stairs from her third-floor home. Her family carried her to the open in a chair. “It was after 1am when my son, Rudranil, woke me up and said, ‘Ma, agun legechhe. Amader berote hobe (Ma, there is a fire. We have to leave)’. But I couldn’t walk. So, they got a chair and made me sit in it. Then, Rudranil and my daughter-in-law carried me down the stairs in it. Even my granddaughter helped carry me to safety,” she said. Bhattacharya, who was born in this very building, added, “I have never seen something like this before.”

None of the residents was allowed to return to their homes. After the fire was completely put out, they were could go up briefly, gather important belongings and leave.

Rathindranath Samajpati (52), a doctor at SSKM Hospital, pointed out that he had been apprehensive of such a disaster and so, had earlier, lodged complaints with the police as well as KMC, against hawkers leaving their goods and kiosks in such a way that their buildings were completely blocked. “I had always feared for this day. There are times, when I could not even step into my own home and take the back entrance.” Samajpati and his wife, Nandita, were asleep, while their younger daughter, Naiwrita (18), were studying for her Class-XII Boards exams. “It was she, who woke us up. She said there was a burning smell and she could hear voices. We ran out to the verandah and saw the flames, which were spreading rapidly. It was around 1.15am,” Samajpati said, standing on the road after spending a chilly night under the sky. “We, along with our elder daughter, Rishita, tried to climb down the stairs but could not as the floors below were ablaze. So, we went to the roof, walked over to the adjoining block and used their stairs to come down. I kept calling the police and fire brigade.”

Rishita, who studies MBBS at College of Medicine and Sagore Dutta Hospital, said in their rush to escape the fire, she left behind her bag, containing her medical books and ID cards. Worse, Naiwrita has lost her boards exam registration documents. In the morning, the teenager stood sobbing by her father, asking without the documents, whether she would be able to take the boards exams or not. Samajpati said, “I still believe if action was taken swiftly, the blaze could have been controlled. I don’t know whether the root of the problem—the dalas—would ever be removed. For all the decades I have lived here, I have seen this place rid of dalas only once, for a few days during Operation Sunshine.”

Advocate couple Suman Ghosh and Saheli Ghosh Mukhopadhyay managed to come out of the building the same way the Samajpatis did. “I was studying late. As I headed for bed and went to check on my children, 18-year-old Subhradal and five-year-old Soumava, I got a burning smell. My son was awake and he felt it too,” Ghosh said. The father-son duo ran to their first-floor verandah to see the portico on fire. “We rushed to pour buckets of water but the flames leapt on, abated. After a while, my son said we should leave,” he added. Subhradal is a first-year JU history student. As the family ran to the roof to climb down the stairs of the adjacent building, they carried the most loved member of the family, Poppins, a dalmatian, along with them.

Ghosh later said, “We don’t know what is in store for us. We managed to come out with my wallet and cellphone only. The tarpaulin tied to our verandah was on fire, and we saw firemen spraying water in our bedroom. There is nothing left for me and my family to salvage from our home.”

Sixty-year-old Maitreyee Basu could hardly recover from the shock. She had woken up around 1pm and seeing her son Subhrodip still working on his computer, urged him to go to sleep. Subhrodip had barely shut down his computer when the burning smell hit both. “The fire was its fiercest at Dr Samajpati’s home below. We ran out with whatever we could lay our hands on,” she said. Many others, including makeup artist Anirudha Chakladar, had a similar escape.