A massive fire at a four-storey building housing illegal manufacturing units in north Delhi's congested Anaj Mandi area on Sunday morning claimed 43 lives. Many others who had received serious burn injuries are still being treated at different hospitals in the national capital. Almost all the deceased were migrant labourers hailing from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. According to the police, most of the fatalities occurred due to suffocation as the people were sleeping when the fire started at around 5 am on the second floor of the building.
Those awakened by the fire, suspected by officials to have been triggered by a short-circuit, had to struggle to escape as the exit routes were partially blocked and several windows were found sealed.
Police also said the building did not have fire safety clearance and was packed with combustible material like cardboards. As many as 63 people were pulled out of the building as it took over 150 firefighters nearly five hours to douse the blaze.
Experts say factories and small manufacturing units that are set up, often illegally, in old and overcrowded quarters of big cities and towns; the cost of land is relatively cheaper.
Mohammad Masih, the owner of the adjacent structure said he heard labourers trying to escape from the building on blaze. "I heard many of the labourers trying to run out of the burning building," Mr Masih said.
"Some had tried to escape from the roof or via the chimney," he added.
Firoz Khan, 32, who worked in a cap manufacturing unit on the third floor and escaped unhurt, said the fire appeared to have started on the second floor and he could flee after alerting others as he was sleeping near a door.
"When I got up, I saw flames engulfing the room in which we were sleeping. The door was about six metres away from me and I alerted other workers sleeping near me," he said.
"Four-five of us rushed out through the door. Many sleeping away from the door were trapped. I don't know if they are alive," he said.
The injured included two minors. However, it was not confirmed whether they worked in the units.
The narrow lanes of Anaj Mandi area made rescue operations difficult for firefighters, who had to cut window-grills to get access to the building. Some injured were carried to the hospital in auto rickshaws.
A preliminary probe suggested that a short-circuit triggered the blaze. Power discom BYPL said the fire began due to "internal system" trouble.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and others condoled the loss of lives.
The dead and injured were taken to LNJP, Lady Hardinge and RML hospitals, where distraught people had a hard time finding their family members. Some recalled the heart-wrenching last phone calls made by their loved ones.
Nafees (58), who lost his two sons in the tragedy, said they had come to Delhi from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh six years ago. They operated a carry bag-manufacturing unit on the second floor in which around 25 people were employed.
"I got a call from Imran (35), my elder son, who said 'Abbu, a massive fire has erupted in the building. I won't be able to come out alive. Please save me'," Nafees said with a lump in his throat.
"I asked him to call the fire brigade and the call ended soon after. He didn't pick up my calls again," he said.
An elderly man, whose three nephews worked at the building, said, "At least 12-15 machines were installed in the unit. I have no idea about the factory owner. My nephews Mohammed Imran and Ikramuddin were inside the factory. I don't know their whereabouts."
Imran and Ikramuddin were later found to be among the 43 dead.
Thirty-four people were brought dead to LNJP hospital and smoke inhalation was the primary cause of death. Some of the bodies were charred, Dr Kishore Singh, Medical Superintendent, LNJP, said. Nine people were brought dead to Lady Hardinge hospital.
Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said it was a "very, very tragic" incident and an ex gratia of Rs 10 lakh each will be given to the next of kin of those killed and Rs 1 lakh to the injured.
Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh each for the families of the deceased.
The Prime Minister approved Rs 50,000 each for those seriously injured. The amount will be paid from the Prime Minister National Relief Fund, the PMO said in a tweet.