Eight more bodies were recovered from the 150-year-old heritage building on upscale Park Street raising the toll in the devastating fire that swept the complex to 24 with another 29 reported missing as the blaze was brought under control on Wednesday morning.
Firefighters, who began search operations from the top floor of the seven-storey building 'Stephen Court' housing restaurants, offices and residences, said the bodies were recovered from the fifth and sixth floors. Smoke was billowing out from two pockets on the top floors which caught fire yesterday afternoon, but the blaze was under complete control, fire officials said.
So far six of the dead have been identified, while 20 injured have been admitted to hospitals. Preliminary investigations indicated that the fire may have broken out due to a short circuit in a lift between the fifth and sixth floors.
A single lane of Park Street which was entirely closed to traffic after the fire, was reopened this morning as a number of shops around the building were back to business. "We are waiting for the forensic team. Once they visit the building and collect samples, we will escort the residents back so that they can collect their belongings," a police officer said.
"Please leave us alone. We are lucky to have escaped with our lives. We are in no mood to speak," said a resident, who along with other inmates was still recovering from the shock.
West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited the building for 10 minutes on his way to the state secretariat.
Police Commissioner Goutam Mohan Chakraborty told newsmen later that the chief minister had instructed the police and the fire brigade to quickly rescue anyone trapped inside and asked the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to pull down the damaged portion of the building.
Chakraborty said there was hardly any possibility of anyone remaining alive in the affected portion of the building and the fire brigade was still looking for bodies. Houses and offices on the top floor were the worst- affected. Computers, air-conditioners, office furniture and household belongings were completely burnt in the raging fire.
The state government had yesterday ordered evacuation of the building. Home Secretary Ardhendu Sen said the occupants would be allowed to return only after obtaining clearance from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Mayor Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya said the burnt portion of the building would be pulled down. The police commissioner said, "the fifth and sixth floors of the building were constructed illegally. These were later regularised."
Rescue operations were hampered as the police and fire brigade were not provided with the building plan, police commissioner said.
"We had asked the building association president for a plan of the building and a list of tenants, but these were not provided to us. If we had the list, we could have saved some more people," he said.
A number of people tried to escape through the roof of the building, but could not do so as the gate was locked, he said.
Fire brigade sources said that the blaze could have been possibly caused by a leak in a power cable of the building's elevator and could have spread through rubber and plastic cables to upper floors .Stephen Court has four blocks and a common terrace and the main stairs in the building were made of wood which were gutted as the fire spread.
According to records with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, there is one official trustee of the building along with 45 apportioned share holders. KMC has declared Stephen Court as a Grade-II heritage building for its architectural value. The two top floors, where the fire broke out, were added in 1984 and have 32 apartments.
The opposition in West Bengal assembly staged a walk out demanding resignation of the fire services minister accusing him of mishandling the Park Street blaze, even as the government announced Rs two lakh as compensation to the next of kin of the victims.
Critical over the handling of the fire, opposition members demanded Fire Services Minister Pratim Chatterjee's resignation or dismissal.
"The minister doesn't have moral responsibility to continue. He should resign owning all responsibility or should be sacked from the ministry," Leader of the Opposition Partha Chatterjee of Trinamool Congress and CLP leader Manas Bhuniya demanded.
Bhuniya said the minister's performance during earlier incidents of fire was miserable and probe reports of many cases were yet to be tabled.
All Trinamool Congress members walked out when Speaker H A Halim refused to accept their demand to defer the day's business to discuss the unprecedented fire.
Announcing the compensation of Rs two lakh to the next of kin of each victim's family in the assembly, the fire services minister said the toll has mounted to 24 while another 24 remained missing and 13 injured were admitted to different hospitals.
Stating that most of the bodies could not be identified, he said help of forensic experts has been sought to ascertain the cause of the fire.
The caretaker of the 150-year- old heritage building on upscale Park Street and his assistant were arrested on Wednesday for negligence and other charges as the toll in the fire that swept through it climbed to 24 with the recovery of eight more bodies.
An FIR was lodged by the fire brigade against caretaker Tarun Bagadia along with his assistant Ramshankar Singh, Kolkata Police Commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakraborty said.
The promoter of the seven-storey Stephen Court building is absconding, police said. Chakraborty said the fifth and sixth floors of the building where the fire broke out yesterday afternoon were constructed illegally. "These were later regularised," he said.
According to records with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, there is one official trustee of the building along with 45 apportioned share holders. KMC has declared has declared Stephen Court as a Grade-II heritage building for its architectural value.
Of the 18 bodies identified, one is that of a child. Four bodies were charred beyond recognition and police said DNA will have to be conducted to establish their identity. At least five people jumped to their death.
Relatives of 15 missing persons carried photographs of their near and dear ones trying to trace them in the busy area. The Stephen Court, located in the heart of the city, houses the iconic 100-year-old Flury's confectionery house and a Music World outlet and several other offices. Preliminary investigations indicated that the fire could have broken out due to a short circuit in a lift between the fifth and sixth floors.
It was a disaster waiting to happen with haphazard wiring, inflammable material like wooden stairs, cables and metal beams besides closed exit points, said a resident. The two top floors, where the fire broke out, were added around 1984 and have 32 apartments. Commissioner Chakraborty said work has started to pull down the endangered portion. A foul smell emanating from the debris raised fears of the body count going up.
"We fear some bodies are there. We are removing the debris slowly. There is a lot of debris and it will take time to clear to see whether there any more bodies," Chakraborty said. The West Bengal government announced compensation of Rs two lakh each to the families of the deceased. Meanwhile, there were conflicting claims over the number of persons missing. While Fire Services Minister Pratim Chatterjee said that 24 people were missing, Commissioner Chakraborty put that number at 12-15. According to Chatterjee, 13 injured were admitted to different hospitals.
A six-member forensic team visited the site and collected samples. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited the building for 10 minutes on his way to the state secretariat. He instructed the police and the fire brigade to rescue anyone trapped inside and asked the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to pull down the damaged portion of the building, which the state government had ordered to be vacated. PTI