Thousands of residents not only lost their homes to the blaze, but also the documents that would have led to their rehabilitation in permanent homes in the future
What had started as a small fire in a locked house quickly turned into a massive inferno in the congested Damu Nagar slums in Kandivli East, razing 2,000 homes to the ground within minutes.
Within 15 minutes, the entire shantytown was razed to the ground. Pics/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Thousands of slum residents watched helplessly as they lost not only all their belongings, but also the documents they had spent the past decade fighting for, so they could eventually be rehabilitated in permanent homes elsewhere.
A series of cylinder explosions rocked the slums and fed the fire further
The fire broke out some time around 12.15 pm, starting from a locked house exactly in the middle of the crowded slums. Panchsheela Chakre, a domestic maid who lived right next door, spotted the blaze first.
“I smelled smoke and came out and saw that my neighbours’ clothes — hanging on a wire outside — were on fire. I immediately ran to inform others so they could douse the fire, but by the time people came, the fire had spread across my neighbour’s house and mine,” she recalled.
The slums comprised at least 2,000 houses packed together tightly in 1000x500 sq metres. The shanties had been erected from tarpaulin, vinyl banners that swiftly went up in smoke. Then began a series of cylinder explosions that rocked the area for several minutes, till the inferno had consumed the entire shantytown within 15 minutes.
By the time the fire brigade was called at 12.45 pm, there was little left to save. “We tried to douse the fire but didn’t have enough water. Within moments, the fire had spread to more homes, and as soon as we started to flee, the first cylinder blast took place,” said another local resident at the scene.
As the fire began in a locked room, it is still unknown what caused it. However, much like the Kalbadevi blaze earlier this year, it is certain that the numerous LPG cylinders and the cramped quarters together turned it into a deadly incident. Many residents admitted that they did not have the documents for gas supply, but they bought cylinders in black from a gas agency near Lokhandwala school.
“Almost all the residents have cylinders; we could easily get one or two cylinders from the agency by paying R1,100 a month. This was easier than buying kerosene every day,” said one of the residents.
Fire officials reached the spot around 1.15 pm; as many as 16 fire engines, seven water tankers and 22 ambulances were pressed into service for the priority-2 fire. It took the fire brigade over three hours to douse the fire. Officials confirmed that the fire-fighting operation had been a struggle due to the narrow lanes, which barely accommodated the fire vehicles.
“First of all, the terrain itself was difficult due to no direct approach road and the traffic-laden, narrow lanes. Secondly, the simultaneous cylinder blasts made it more difficult for the fire fighters. Around 10-15 cylinders had exploded one after another,” said chief fire officer PS Rahangdale.
The question that faces the now homeless residents of the slum is how they will find another home. This isn’t the first time that their slum has been wiped out. Damu Nagar is part of the protected forest area within the Sanjay Gandhi National Park perimeter, so in 2000, Forest Department officials had conducted a demolition drive at the slum.
When the slum dwellers returned and set up their homes again, they were fined Rs 7,000 each but were given receipts and asked to furbish documents to prove they had been living there since at least 1995.
This would make them eligible for rehabilitation in either Chandivli or Goregaon. However, with the fire having charred all the papers, their hopes have now turned to ashes in their mouth.
13 residents were rushed to Shatabdi Hospital after fractures and smoke inhalation. Two were declared dead — a Prahlad Kharat and an unidentified child. Three patients sustained major burn injuries.