Mumbai's silent heroes: They braved the flames to protect the flag
As Mantralaya burned, six bravehearts waited on the terrace, guarding the tricolour from the flames; only after they had brought it down safely did they budge from the spot.
An indication of the devastation that spread through Mantralaya may be gauged by the fact that the national flag, which has fluttered proudly from the terrace every day, had to be brought down abruptly yesterday, to avoid being singed by tongues of fire. And six brave men went beyond the call of duty to guard the tricolour from the threat of incineration, and brought it down before the flames could devour it.
Reports say that the fire was sparked off at 2.40 pm by a short circuit on the fourth floor of the building. It spread, fed by the wooden frames lining the office walls, and moved towards the upper storeys of the building. The flag flew high on the terrace all this while, even as the tongues of flame approached it. As per routine, six workers, including Suresh Baria (38), were sitting inside their small cabin on the terrace, close to the flag. This team is vested with the responsibility of hoisting the flag at 6.05 every morning, and bringing it down at sunset.
Minutes after they finished lunch, the furious columns of smoke rising from beneath told Baria and his colleagues that something had gone terribly wrong. At 2.50 pm staff members from floors beneath told them that a fire had broken out, and was spreading with great speed. “We felt that this would be the last day of our lives. We had braced ourselves for death, convinced that we wouldn’t survive,” said Baria.
They waited patiently on the terrace, guarding the tricolour as it continued to flutter. They could see the flames dancing upwards, approaching closer every second. Baria and his colleagues were soon informed that fire engines had arrived and a rescue mission had been flagged off. But they couldn’t budge — they were unsure of what to do with the flag, and chose to wait for instructions. There is no precedent of bringing the tricolour down prematurely, as no such disaster had befallen the building in the past. As they waited, these bravehearts saw their colleagues desperately clamber down the windows from the top floors.
After a nail-biting wait for almost two hours, the orders finally came from the Chief Minister’s office at 4.30 pm – they were to bring the flag down safely. Following instructions, they brought the tricolour down.
Having answered the call of duty, it was time to descend from the heights of the building and move to safety. Baria’s mother stood near the building, hollering out helpful instructions.
“I called out to him and began giving him directions to where the fire brigade was installing ladders,” said Leela. Finally the six guardians of the tricolour were helped down by fire brigade officers with the help of a ladder. Around 65 others who were stranded in the top floors were rescued with them. After touching down, Baria was greeted by his family. He had shown courage in the face of fire.