Kalbadevi fire: Short circuit could be source, but chemicals made it worse

May 11, 2015, 06:51 IST | Sachin Unhalekar

Sources said a spark from the electric cabin of one of the shops may have started the fire, but it was the chemicals used to clean gold in a workshop that may have unleashed the inferno

Prima facie investigations into the deadly blaze in Kalbadevi’s Gokul Niwas building point towards the fact that though the fire may have started in a shop on the ground floor, it was the stored chemicals and mobile batteries on the upper floors of the structure that wreaked havoc upon it.

Also Read: More fire disasters waiting to happen in Kalbadevi

The source of the fire is suspected to be a spark in the electric meter of a ground-floor shop, but the mobile phone batteries on the second floor and chemicals for cleaning gold, stored on the fourth floor, turned it into an inferno. Pics/Bipin Kokate

After getting a call at 4.20 pm, when the firefighters reached Gokul Niwas, they saw that a small sari shop on the ground floor had caught fire. This shop was right below the wooden staircase. Sources said the spark may have originated from the electric meter cabin and flew onto the cloth. The shop owner had closed the shutters, in an attempt to contain the flames, but it only made matters worse.

Also Read: Kalbadevi fire: Cash, valuables lie scattered on open ground

Smoke billowing from the burning sari godown had hampered the firemen’s vision.

Since the building was under repairs, the scaffolding and repair material kept on the premises ensured the flames reached the upper floors. Even with people running helter-skelter, firemen managed to rescue 14 persons stranded inside by 4.45 pm. Two women and an 11-month-old child were stranded on the third floor. Firefighters rushed to the neighbouring building and managed to save the trio.

By this time, the fire had reached the second floor after completely consuming a sari godown on the first floor. Smoke billowing from that room hindered firemen’s vision. By 5.35 pm, Deputy Chief Fire Officer Sudhir Amin put up a ladder against the back of the building and rescued three men stuck on the third floor.

By 5.50 pm, Chief Fire Officer Sunil Nesrikar, along with fire officers S W Rane and M N Desai, entered the building. Sources said Nesrikar wanted to inspect the rescue operations. He, along with Rane, Desai and Amin went inside. As the four saw only smoke, they assumed the blaze had been tamed.

Unbeknownst to them, there were cell phone batteries on the second floor. On the fourth floor was a gold workshop full of chemicals used to clean the metal. The presence of these substances increased the intensity of the flames. “We heard a terrible blast on the second floor where mobile phone batteries and an air conditioner compressor had been kept,” said a fire officer.

Also Read: Vehicles parked on narrow roads hampered rescue operations

The 50-year-old structure couldn’t withstand the damage any more. The left side of the building started to collapse and fell on Rane and Desai. The duo was crushed under the debris; the torches they had been holding fell onto the debris, shining the light onto the hands they had been in, moments ago.

At the same time, Nesrikar was hit by a ball of fire squarely on his face. He was attempting to climb on a ladder and fell on the same heap under which Rane and Desai were trapped. At around 7.10 pm, Nesrikar was rescued by other firemen.

Meanwhile a big slab came down straight onto Amin — who is considered to be a strongman among the firemen — and fell on his legs. However, the chemical substances that had served to further the fire were still to cause more damage.

The liquid came dripping onto Amin and continued trickling down on his body for more than an hour. This led to Amin suffering from extreme burn injuries and with him trapped under a huge slab, it proved to be difficult to pull him out.

A JCB machine was brought in at around 8.20 pm to lift the heavy slab atop Amin. 25 firemen then entered and pulled him out. His skin had turned completely white due to the splashing chemical.

Within a couple of hours, the building crumbled. Gradually, the bodies of Desai and Rane were also removed around midnight. While the duo perished in their fight, Amin and Nesrikar are battling for their lives.

The rescue team

16 fire engines
10 water tankers
5 rescue vans
2 ladder machines

“I have spoken to the BMC Commissioner Ajoy Mehta about the incident. He has now set up an inquiry into it,” said Swadheen Kshatriya, chief secretary, Maharashtra government.

‘I’ll support him when he goes back to work’
Jayshree Nesrikar (45), wife of Chief Fire Officer Sunil Nesrikar, is a brave woman. Her husband suffered 50 per cent third-degree burns while trying to douse the fire at Gokul Niwas in Kalbadevi. “Every time my husband leaves for work, I keep thinking of the condition he will return in. Sometimes I wish he had a less dangerous job, but somebody has to do this. I’m sure he will resume work the minute he gets well and I will support him,” said the homemaker.

Sunil underwent two surgeries for decompression on both his extremities, upper (hands) and lower (legs).
“The damage caused to Nesrikar’s health is slightly less than Sudhir Amin, as he was pulled out from the burning debris within 15 minutes. Amin was pulled out after almost two hours,” said Dr S M Keswani.

Another early excision and grafting surgery will be conducted on Nesrikar on Tuesday in order to remove the dead tissues and replace the damaged skin through procedures called  ‘autografting’ and ‘homografting’.

Pics/Datta Kumbhar

Saluting the heroes
Firefighters M N Desai and S W Rane, who perished while trying to douse the fire at Gokul Niwas, were given a guard of honour and state funeral yesterday. The ceremonies took place at the Byculla fire station.

Fireman was all set for holiday
Sudhir Amin (50), deputy chief fire officer, who was severely injured in the Kalbadevi fire, was all set to go on a much-deserved vacation. Amin had planned to go to Karwar, his hometown in Karnataka, on May 12. His wife and two children had already left two days ago. Three days before, the building caught fire. “My brother was supposed to go to Karwar for a holiday, but this incident has shattered everything,” said the brave firefighter’s sister. While his wife was supposed to return on Sunday night, according to a close relative, Amin’s three sisters and his brother have been by his side at the National Burns Centre in Airoli, ever since he was admitted there. Amin has suffered 90 per cent fourth-degree burns; only his chest and abdomen area were left relatively unscathed. “We have put him on ventilator, as his respiratory tract is damaged and his blood pressure levels are fluctuating,” said Dr S M Keswani, who is treating Amin. Injuries on Amin’s legs are more severe as compared to his hands, and a decompression surgery was carried out on both his hands and legs to re-establish blood flow.

Paying the bills
The fire department will be bearing the expenses of treating the injured fire officers, Sunil Nesrikar and Sudhir Amin. According to P S Rahangadale, deputy chief fire officer, “We have been given 18 ATM cards (by the BMC) with which we can withdraw up to R12 lakh in total. As soon as we get the medical bill, we will pay the requisite amount.”  Additional Municipal Commissioner (city) Pallavi Dharade, M V Deshmukh, president, Maharashtra Fire Services, and a few other politicians visited the duo in the Airoli hospital. “Both Nesrikar and Amin have always been a rock-solid support to us. Their well-being is of utmost importance to the fire department,” said S Patel, a fire engine driver from the Vikhroli fire station.
— Delaveen Cherag Tarapore

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