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31 Mar 2017

Killer smoke races up AC duct - Hotel fire in heart of city, Tata Steel employee and Surat textile trader choke to death

The five-storey Golden Parkk hotel on Ho Chi Minh Sarani, with a pub in the basement, is set among some of Calcutta’s landmarks. It has the Tata Centre to its west and the upcoming apartment complex, The 42, to the north. The British deputy high commission is diagonally across the street while the US consulate is about 150 metres away. On the right is the hotel after the fire. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta
TT, Calcutta, March 30: An early morning fire in a hotel next to Tata Centre suffocated two guests to death and terrified dozens of others trapped in their rooms and searching for escape routes in smoke-filled darkness.
The fire started around 2.45am, apparently from a ground-floor pantry with a microwave oven, at the rear of Golden Parkk, located on Ho Chi Minh Sarani. The smoke travelled to all the four upper floors through the AC duct, like it had at AMRI Hospital in Dhakuria five winters ago, fire brigade officials said.
"There was more smoke than flames," a fireman said.
The dead were identified as Chamar Kishen, 49, a Tata Steel employee from Odisha's Sundargarh district, and Anoop Kumar Agarwal, 53, a Surat-based textile trader.
Anoop Kumar Agarwal, the Surat businessman who died  in the fire
Eyewitnesses said some of the guests had already climbed down the plumbing on the outside walls when the fire brigade arrived. The firemen used manual and mechanical ladders to rescue the remaining 25-odd trapped inside, some of them severely ill.
Eight of the guests were taken to SSKM Hospital, where Kishen and Agarwal were declared dead on arrival. Ajit Horo, Anand Mohanty and Chandni Chandrana were shifted to Woodlands Hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning and the rest discharged after treatment.
None of the dead or injured suffered burns, SSKM doctors said. "It seems the two men suffocated to death," a doctor said.
Kishen and Agarwal were in rooms at the rear - north-facing side - of the fourth floor. Kishen was in Room 406, while Agarwal was in Room 416. Agarwal had arrived on Sunday and was to leave today. His friends said he had been making business trips to Calcutta for 25 years.
At Woodlands, a doctor said that Horo and Mohanty -both Tata Steel employees - were in intensive care with "severe respiratory distress". He added that Chandrana, who works for a consultancy, had been admitted with "headache and vomiting".
One reason the death toll was low despite the hotel having 45 guests, fire officials said, was that many of them were fit enough to flee. The December 2011 fire at AMRI Dhakuria had claimed 93 lives, mostly bedridden patients.
Fire officials said they had come prepared with two ladders and the first thing they did was smash the glass windows to let the smoke out.
They added that the hotel had sprinklers, smoke detectors and a fire alarm but none of these were functional, probably because of poor maintenance. At least two fire extinguishers were past expiry date.
There was a fire escape but the staircase was narrow. A reporter from this newspaper found the landings clogged with old furniture in the afternoon. The staircase had no fluorescent signage to guide the guests, several of whom said the smoke had reduced visibility to "zero".
Based on a fire brigade complaint of negligence and non-compliance, the police have arrested the hotel's owner, Bhupender S. Gujrral, and manager Gautam Majumdar.
They have been charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, causing grievous hurt by act endangering life, commission of mischief that caused damage, and sections of the fire services act relating to lack of safety arrangements. The maximum possible punishment is a life term.
Fire officials said the call had come around 2.55am and the first fire tenders reached the spot in five minutes. By then some of the guests had jumped down to the ledge or squirmed down the pipes.
Friends Nilanjan Palit and Sumit Chakraborty, both 39, were sharing a third-floor room at the hotel's rear end that had "filled with smoke". The businessmen from Purulia lowered themselves to the ledge, saw a pipe, and "clung to it and came down".
One of their friends, staying at the other side of the hotel, the one that faces Ho Chi Minh Sarani, too opened his window and jumped onto the ledge but got stranded there.
He said he didn't panic because he could see that the firemen had arrived and had spotted him perched on the ledge. In 10 minutes, they had him on the ground.
The hotel has 72 rooms and four suites. It has, an employee said, a staff strength of 250 including the cooks and those involved in maintenance, accounts, marketing, service and security. One part of the terrace houses a banquet hall and the other, the central air-conditioning unit.
A walk through the corridors today revealed rooms covered in layers of soot, some with smashed windowpanes.
A forensic team came in the afternoon and collected samples. "The blaze may have started from a short circuit or a kitchen fire," fire brigade director-general Jag Mohan said.
The pantry or service room where the fire is suspected to have started was being used to store utensils and food, to be heated over the microwave and delivered if the guests ordered any late at night.
By 8am, 10 fire tenders had wrestled the fire under control.

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