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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Scorched! Scarred!

Who'd have expected vultures to hover over Park Street?

After all, Park Street has always been the happily-bustling passageway, where business mixes with pleasure, the upscale meets the lowbrow, and where the overall spirit is that of a joyous celebration of life.

But last Tuesday (23rd March, 2010, a day that Kolkatans can never forget!) Stephen Court - the much recognized, much loved, much filmed, much chronicled, historic building on Park Street - was on fire, and a whole week of gloom has kept me and many other Kolkatan stupefied by the tragedy.
The loss has been immense.
Worse has been the post-blaze state of affairs.

As several charred bodies remained trapped under the immense pile of debris,
and the air had the overwhelming stench of burnt organic and inorganic matter,
and carcasses, the site brought nothing but tears to the eyes of all the passersby who might have traversed along the stretches of Park Street a million times on happy occasions; earlier they might have dined, shopped, made merry, or might have been the regular visitors to the cursed building itself, on work purposes, or otherwise.

It was a case of ravaging agony since that fiery summer afternoon, that blasted Tuesday when the fifth and the sixth floors had become a veritable inferno, engulfing people within, trapped men and women jumped to death, some never made their way out, some were soon charred to ashes, a few others may have even struggled with burnt skin and bloodied limbs, wishing death to come soon, while the roof that had caved in, had beams and mesh of wires and concrete sealing the exit for some of the victims, many struggled hard to go the terrace but, alas, the way to it was sealed, and they got scalded alive on the stairway itself, it was hellish!

Stephen Court (named after Arathoon Stephen, mentioned as the lease-holder for the property at 18A Park Street in the city's civic records dating back to World War I) housed residential as well as commercial establishments, and, in spite of a threat of electrical short-circuits and overloading, had been a mute witness to the much practiced flouting of the fire-safety norms.
Like many of the old, and heritage buildings of the city, it was almost a tinderbox awaiting a tragedy to happen anytime. Though the building has been embroiled in ownership tangles, it has never had a registered flat-owners' association to protect the civic rights of the residents. Originally, the building had just three floors, but the fourth floor was added in the 1930s, and in 1984 two more storeys had been added.
The labyrinthine interiors, the offices with plywood partitions and false ceilings, the indiscriminate use of air-conditioners and several other potential-risk factors made it an impossibility for many to come out alive of the burning building.
As per the latest information released, the death toll has been recorded as 43 (decomposed bodies continued to be unearthed till yesterday), many of them may had died of suffocation before the flames reached them.
The blaze in the top floors of the eight-storey commercial and apartment block could not be controlled even after four hours.
For some of the kith & kin of the those who died in the tragedy, the wit for the bodily remains has been yet another unbelievable nightmare. A few of the bodily remains have dual claimants, and only DNA and bone-marrow hold the promise of a solution to the conflict.
The fire in Stephen Court not only snatched away lives, but also jobs of employees working in offices situated on the two top fire-ravaged floors. For some employees getting another job may be a difficult affair as they have suffered serious injuries while jumping off the building to avoid certain death.
As far as the role of the administration is concerned, it has once again revealed nothing but apathy and nonchalance. Serious criticisms have been levelled against the department fire services, against the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, and even the police.
The saddest part in the aftermath of the tragedy has been the exposing of the officials' penchant for passing-the-buck. No one wants to be accountable, shifting of responsibility on others' shoulders seems to be the skill that some men have been specialising in, over the years. It is a known fact that the firefighters were ill-equipped, and ill-prepared for a large scale fire-fighting operation as this one, and had the sky-lift reached in time, several precious lives could have been saved.
But all that has been promised to the anguished people of the city is a committee, one that threatens to conduct just a farcical probe, to look into the lapses if any, along with suggesting of amendments in the existing rules and laws and fire services.
The carrion-feeding vultures are leaving now, and business promises to return like a phoenix from the ashes, but let's pray that the vulture-like corrupt and power-hungry politicians who love to engage themselves in word-games narrowing in on vote-banks be banished from Kolkata's environs,
just as we pray for peace for the lost souls,
may we never forget the lives lost,
we are ashamed,
we are truly tormented.
We have been scarred.

[Pic courtesy: The Hindu; Google Images]


mehul said...

When the devastating fire in the century-old Stephen Court claimed precious lives, we were yet to wake up to the shock and agony that lay ahead. We have been numbed by the sheer callousness of the authorities, I am not blaming all, who have failed to wake up to the need of the hour and come up with lending a healing touch. Had it not been for the courageous local youth who did their best to help many come out of the blazing building, there would have been even greater casualties.

Arunima said...

For the first time, I have no words to post as comment to your heartfelt post. It is only a deep rooted sadness, helplessness and perhaps a feeling of apprehension that paralyses all senses. I don’t know when we will learn any lessons from the Stephen court disaster in Kolkata or a Carlton tower incident in Bangalore!

aryan said...

One would have thought the Super Hospitality Box, i.e. the V.I.P. enclosure courtesy Shah Rukh Khan, at the Eden Gardens was the only place unsafe enough to invite a fire-mishap, judging by the war of words and clash of egos between the Fire Services Minister of West Bengal and Shah Rukh that had ensued for a few days prior to the Stephen Court tragedy.........
But, alas! Pratim Chakraborty, the minister concerned had only been making a mountain out of a mole-hill.... while the entire city - with its unsafe building, flouting rules, safeguards, provisions whatsoever - has been waiting for a mammoth tragedy to occur, and, God forbid, recur!!!!
The way the administration has been conducting itself even after the terrible disaster makes us shamefaced all the more!

Dibyendu Paul said...

It was really Scary incident indeed .. and I wonder the sophisticated area like park street can hold this kinda misery ..

Anyways it made our eye open in a different way ..

And more over that the scorching summerdays are jst screwing our lives out here ..Initially we all started to think that the summer wud nt be much Hot this year wid the progress of the season .. But it seems that we are going to have the hottest summer of this decade.. :(

deeptadeep said...

I pray that such a devastating fire doesn't snatch our loved ones in the future.

Piyush said...

One of the worst disasters in Kolkata in the recent times.... as the casualties could be brought down considerably if the firefighting administration would have acted more prudently and sensibly!

Siddhu said...

After the tragedy, came the efforts in fault-finding, blame-fixing, and political mud-slinging. But the horrors threaten to revisit us....
The scars are a sore reminder that thousands in the city risk perishing, if again a major fire outbreak happens in any of the high-rises.
Just as the fire-safety department exposes its inefficiency in the absence or inadequacy of sophisticated sky-lifts, spiral emergency chutes, cushioned platforms and better-equipped staff, the civic bodies are inconspicuous in their apathy towards implementation of diverse norms.
The owners of buildings like Stephen Court wash their hands off maintenance. Owing to poor upkeep, a maze of wires, dangling cables, makeshift electrical arrangements, faulty wiring, unsafe meter-boxes, and irresponsible installations of generators, transformers, and air-conditioners invite fire peril at all times.

shiv said...

A timely post!
For me, the saddest reality to have emerged in the aftermath of the Stephen Court tragedy is that the political parties are all in cahoots with the realtors and the Municipal Corporation to promote illegal constructions. The callousness in poor implementation of the safety norms (including fire-safety) stem from thereon. The rot in the system is very much evident to all. But do we really have the gumption to deal with the can of worms that's been all but waiting to be revealed?

pallavi agarwal said...

The tragedy was terrible. More than the extensive nature and the loss of lives, I was shocked by the facts that we all learned in its wake. The tragedy has exposed how the flouting of fire-safety norms, and of other safeguards, pose a constant risk to people like us who live in high-rise apartments. I hope we all take a leaf from the huge disaster at Stephen Court and prevent the recurrence of such tragedies in the future.