On Monday morning, at 4.30am, 39-year-old Dasarathar woke up coughing, as thick black smoke forced its way into his house and lungs. A tenant at one of the units at RJES Apartments in Vadapalani, he was driven into a state of panic by the near zero visibility. But he had no time to ponder over his own fears. His wife was up and children in tears as they struggled to breathe.
The family rushed to the stairwell of the four-storey apartment to escape, only to find a blazing fire at the basement. What happened next, was a series of stunts from the father of two, propelled by fear and desperation to save his family. Dasarathar jumped to the sun shade of his building and used a clothes line to help the rest of his family descend from their home's balcony. From there, fire rescue personnel who had arrived at the site, used ladders to help them escape from the second floor of the building.
While this family proved to be lucky, several others in the apartment were not. Four people, belonging to one of the houses, were killed, and five others were injured due to the thick smoke and heat emanating from a fire that broke out in the parking lot at the basement. Amongst the dead are Meenakshi (60), Selvi (38), Sandhya (10) and Sanjay (3), and all of them were staying in the first floor of the apartment. They suffocated to death from the smoke, after being trapped inside their homes.
Ten-year-old Sandhya's mother, Latha told The News Minute that the two children were cousins and had gone to spend time with their grandmother. "Since it was the summer holidays, I left my daughter with my mother. She loved spending time with her grandmother and insisted that she go there," says Latha, unable to restrain tears. "I didn't even know this happened till 7 am in the morning. I work as a maid in a house, a neighbour called there and informed me," she says, sobbing. Latha then rushed to her mother's home but it was already locked, with police swarming the area. She then came to the Kilpauk medical hospital where, she claims, she was not even allowed to see her child's body.
"They are saying they will first do postmortem but I want to see my child's body. My relatives who saw it are saying it was black and completely covered in soot. How exactly did my child die? I am not convinced that a short circuit led to this massive fire." Latha says desperately. Sanjay, the three-year-old who died in the incident, is Latha's sister's child. The two sisters sit crestfallen, a little away from the intensive burns unit where their brother Iyyappan, who was also injured, is being treated.
Police investigating the case told TNM that 16-year-old Iyyappan had suffered 'only 54% burns' and was not seriously injured. According to sources, scrap wood and other flammable material was placed near the junction box at the parking lot. A voltage fluctuation and resulting spark allegedly led to these materials catching fire. Following this, the flame spread to motorbikes parked there. Over 20 vehicles have been gutted in the fire.
But doctors who spoke to the waiting media made it quite clear that all five of the injured were in critical condition. Finance Minister Jayakumar who came to visit the victims in KMC, came out to claim that the deceased and injured had inhaled excessive carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from the noxious flames.
But while the police and even the minister offer reasons for the spread of the fire and the death of the victims, they failed to address questions over whether the building followed fire safety standards. As it turns out, this apartment itself has been built in violation of existing laws.
Accident waiting to happen?
In this particular street in Vadapalani where this apartment is located, buildings are cramped next to each other. The building itself was partially covered in soot. Bikes in the parking lot were burnt beyond recognition and plastic pipes had melted, allowing water to freely fall upon the floor covered in ash.
Police officers present at the site claimed they were hesitant to go up themselves because the fire may have weakened the building. They were justified in their skepticism because according to reports from 2016, this apartment was built by an AIADMK leader, who had blatantly flouted multiple norms.
The required permission for the construction of this apartment was allegedly never granted by authorities. In addition to this, the land occupied by the building reportedly belongs to the Government. In 2013, the CMDA wrote to the Municipal corporation demanding that action be taken in this matter. But the corporation failed to crackdown on this illegal construction till 2016, according to multiple reports.
TNM cannot confirm if action was taken following August 2016 but even if it was initiated, there has clearly been no change in the ground situation. In fact, Dasarathar, who described his heroic escape to us, has moved in to his house only last month.
When we confronted the family of the deceased on the violation of regulations, they claimed to be unaware. All they had to say was, "We have lived there for several years. â€œ
With not even a fire extinguisher in place, these deaths from the fire were just waiting to happen.