How Mantralaya failed its trial by fire

A disaster control room, armed with the latest equipment to facilitate disaster management in the state’s secretariat building now lies in a heap of ashes – so do crucial documents and papers which record some of the most important affairs of the state. The fire that broke out at Mantralaya at 2.40 pm yesterday, spread like wildfire within minutes, gutting the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh floors of the state headquarters completely. 

Towards safety: A policeman leads the panic-stricken people, who climbed onto the parapet to escape the flames, to safety; stairways get chocked up (below) as those present inside the building run for their lives Pic/Bipin Kokate

In the face of this trial by fire, pandemonium reigned at the building that supposedly houses the most alert minds that run the state – the use of the firefighting system was marked by mismanagement and chaos, and the fire alarm system malfunctioned, failing to warn people in time. The government has done what it does best – order an enquiry to see why the systems weren’t in place when disaster struck. Files that are reported to have been burnt include those recording matters relating to revenue, school education, general administration, energy and home departments.

First flames
According to Mantralaya employees, the fire was sparked off by a short circuit in a server room located at the corner of the fourth floor, which was detected at around 2.40 pm – an hour when visitors are allowed into the building. Joint Secretary Suresh Kakani, whose office is located next to the server room, reported that he heard a blast, and soon, thick columns of smoke were rushing into his chamber. “My staffers told me that a short circuit had occurred and the smoke was engulfing the chamber. So we quickly left the room.”

The office of the Tribal Development Minister Babanrao Pachpute, which flanks the server room, suffered a similar fate. “As the lights suddenly went off, I asked my staffers to find out what had happened. They returned with news of the fire, and I left the room with them.” Chaos broke out when staffers and visitors present in the building were advised to evacuate its premises as swiftly as possible. Some were not ready to leave, assuming that it was a minor blaze. It was when smoke started filling the entire south and west wing of the main building that people started making a mad dash for the exit. Minister of State for Housing, Sachin Ahir, left his office along with his staffers and visitors. The chamber of the School Education Minister Rajendra Darda, located on the same floor, was soon set ablaze. So was the office of the Additional Chief Secretary for Urban Development T C Benjamin.

Fifth floor
Bureaucrats and visitors on this floor were oblivious of the intensity of the fire till it was too late to escape the flames. Ignorant of the urgency of the situation, they chose to remain in their chambers. This failure in communication caused many visitors to be stranded on windows and parapets of the buildings till fire-fighting snorkels rescued them.

The floor houses chambers of the State Chief Secretary J K Banthia, the Additional Chief Secretary (home) Amitabh Rajan, Minister of State for Revenue Prakash Solanke, Higher and Technical Education Minister Rajesh Tope, Cooperation Minister Harshwardhan Patil as well as offices of general administration, energy, home.

Sixth floor
On the sixth floor, which houses the all-important CM’s chamber and offices, matters started heating up soon. Prithviraj Chavan was at Sahyadri Guest House for a few scheduled meetings, but Deputy CM Ajit Pawar was in his chamber meeting visitors when the fire broke out. On the advice of his staffers, he left the floor and stationed himself in the Mantralaya garden to monitor the rescue operations. Some stranded victims were seen flailing their arms at him, as a desperate plea for help.

The CM’s chamber and the office that takes care of his appointments, the section that deals with his relief fund, were gutted completely. His PRO’ office, chambers of his Principal Secretary Ajitkumar Jain and his joint secretaries were also reduced to rubble. Computers too were reduced to ashes.

At the Mantralaya annexe, Industries Minister Narayan Rane, Food & Civil Supplies Minister Anil Deshmukh and Animal Husbandry Minister Madhukarrao Chavan cut short their scheduled meetings and evacuated the building along with hundreds of employees and visitors, using the stairs from the sixth floor to climb down to safety. Home Minister R R Patil, however, prevailed in his first floor chamber, leaving the building one-and-a half hours later, around 4 pm.

Seventh floor
The situation was bleak for employees and visitors at the offices of the Home Department on this floor, who were trapped by the fires on the floors beneath them. They waited anxiously for the rescue teams. Employees of the Public Works Department (PWD) who are specially deputed to look after the national flag thaty flies high on the terrace, were also trapped on this floor, and decided to bring it down before it could be singed. For the first time in the history of the building, the flag was brought down.

Files burnt
Even as fire engines reached the Mantralaya and were pressed into service, the fire kept on spreading, engulfing crucial documents and files, crucial records pertaining to the management of the state. Helping the tongues of flame spread from room to room were the wooden frames in all the chambers of ministers and their staffers. There is hardly any office in the building that has walls made of bricks and cement. The CM soon reached Mantralaya to assess the situation and stayed put. Governor K Shankaranarayanan insisted on visiting the site of the fire, even though his staffers and policemen advised him against it.

The city police had sent an advisory to its security wings, asking all the VVIPs to avoid visiting the site. Later, speaking to the media on the debacle, the Relief and Rehabilitation Minister Dr Patangrao Kadam, his colleagues Nitin Raut, Babanrao Pachpute and Prakash Solanke had a tough time explaining the cause of the delay in starting the rescue operation. They revealed that the fire fighting teams had rescued 65 people. Of them, five injured were admitted to hospital, two of whom are critical.

Prashant Joshi, personal assistant of BJP MLC Dhananjay Munde, spoke of the hellish experience he suffred along with 34 staffers and vistors, as they clung to windows and parapet walls to escape the tongues of flame. “I sent a text message to Deputy CM, to save me along and the others stranded with me,” he said. “The walls, the water supply and toilet pipes were burning hot. Two people almost lost consciousness as they battled against the fumes and the intense heat,” said Joshi. “The snorkel that reached out to rescue us could only take seven persons at a time, and I was the last person to be rescued, in the fifth trip. When I finally landed on solid ground, I was unable to stand on my feet and could barely speak for the next 30 minutes.” 

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