The stench of burning rubber hung thick in the air at the outskirts of Hyderabad as dark smoke could be seen billowing from several kilometres away.
As one approached the Agarwal Rubber Industry at the Patencheru Industrial Area in Sangareddy district, several fire engines and water tankers could be seen blocking the street.
The tyre factory caught fire in the early hours of Tuesday, burning several hundred tonnes of rubber.
Ten fire tenders worked for more than 12 hours, before the fire was brought under control. As of Tuesday evening, the fire was contained to a small part of the large factory.
"We can't estimate how much loss has happened yet. It will be several crore rupees. We are just glad at the moment, that no one was hurt or injured and all the workers escaped," an official of the company, overseeing the fire tenders, told TNM.
Officials of the Telangana State Disaster Response and Fire Services Department who were present at the spot said that the fire would take until Tuesday night to be put out, after which an investigation would be launched to find out the cause of the accident.
They said that they suspected a short circuit but could only be sure of it in a day or two.
“The heat is making things more difficult and slowing down our process of putting out the fire quickly,” an official said.
Several locals gathered to watch the fire personnel at work, even as the road was covered with black soot; a by-product of the burnt rubber mixing with large quantities of water.
According to officials, there were close to 500 to 600 workers in the factory at the time of the incident.
The factory is divided into two sections; one for the tyres and one for the tubes.
"It was around 2 am and we were working in the night shift. Suddenly the smoke came and we all ran for our lives. It was a miracle that no one was hurt," said one eye-witness who worked in the tubes section.
As soon as the fire broke out, workers said that all the gates of the factory were thrown open and everyone was evacuated safely.
By around 3 am, most of the workers from the day shift who lived nearby, had also gathered at the spot.
"There were many machines on this side of the factory as well. We pulled out whatever we could, without putting ourselves in danger, but we had to just watch the rest of the tyres burn,” said Prabhakar, who was in-charge of the day shift.
“We got the smell at around 3 am but this area generally has a peculiar smell because of all the industries. When we woke up at 5am, there was smoke covering almost one km in every direction,” says one local.
“The fire was as high as a tall building and the smoke reached the height of a skyscraper. It may have been at least 200 feet tall. We also heard a few explosions as some fuel cans burst and made the flames bigger,” another local piped in.
Even when TNM visited the spot, workers were loading the tyres that were saved into trucks, to shift them to the company’s godown nearby.
Workers in the lurch
Among the crowd of people watching the fire personnel at work, were several workers who had escaped from the accident.
The factory employed several hundred migrant labourers from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal besides people from the districts of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
With the fire gutting a massive amount of property and causing a multi-crore loss to the company, workers are unsure about their future.
TNM spoke to a few of the workers as they sat near the factory, watching the fire tenders at work.
“I hail from Odisha and have been working for a few months now. Most of us migrated here for better job opportunities. I have managed to save and I will return home, probably get married and settle down over there,” one worker said.
Others had no choice but to continue staying in the city.
“It has just been one month since I came here and I have a family dependent on me to send money back home. If I lose this job, I just have to find another one. There is no going back home in the near future for me,” another worker added.
“While the company is yet to let us know what will happen to us, it is totally understandable if they have to let some of us go. They have suffered a much bigger loss after all,” one of the men said.
Pointing to flags of Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and Hind Mazdoor Sabha (HMS) that were flying outside the company’s main entrance, one worker said, “We just hope that we get enough money as compensation if we are getting fired and hopefully the unions will negotiate with the company on our behalf.”
The incident is especially heart-breaking for the owners of the corporation as it follows close on the heels of a similar incident three months ago, when a godown of the same company had caught fire.
Hearing that the company suffered a loss of Rs 25 crore, the owner suffered from a heart attack and died. His family has since been running the factory.
According to the company’s website, Agarwal Rubbers Ltd. was first incorporated in 1983 as a manufacturer, supplier and exporter of tyres and tubes. Beginning with a modest production capacity of 200 tubes per day, they grew over the years to produce more than 40,000 in a single day.
Telangana Home Minister Nayini Narasimha Reddy also visited the spot.
Speaking to reporters, he said, “What happened today was a tragedy. It is estimated that the company has lost at least Rs 60 to 70 crore. What exactly happened, we will ascertain after the smoke clears.”
“Just recently, they lost several crore when the godown caught fire. The management has faced serious losses and it will be tough to bounce back. Even as they were reeling from their father’s death, who built the company, this heart-breaking accident has occurred. The Telangana government will extend help to the management,” he added.
He also commended the work done by the Fire Services Department. Responding to a question from the media, he said that a preliminary investigation suggested that the company had adequate fire safety measures in place.
“As the state’s Labour Minister and Home Minister, I will speak to Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and ensure that the company and its labourers are not adversely affected and production is resumed soon,” Nayini said.