Kerala man who died in Kuwait fire was to return home for daughter’s admission

Most of the bereaved families appear to have learnt the news from media reports, and not from the company or government officials, we realised when we visited three of them in Kollam.
Lukose Oonunny
Lukose Oonunny
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Lukose Oonnunny had planned to come home to Kerala from Kuwait this month, but pushed it by a few more weeks so he could be there when his elder daughter joins college. Home is in Velichikkala near Chathannoor of Kollam, where his family had been awaiting his visit after the last one a year ago. Lydia, the elder daughter, was promised a present for graduating her Class 12 exams with high grades and Lukose was to accompany her to take admission in a Bengaluru college. There’d be another gift for Lucy, his younger daughter of 10. 

In his everyday calls home, he’d told his wife Shiny and his parents that all preparations were made for his journey home. But they didn't hear from Lukose on Wednesday, June 12. By 11 in the morning his brother Mathew realised that the building in Kuwait they showed in the news, of having caught fire, was where Lukose lived. Much later they heard what they feared the most: Lukose was among the Malayalis who died in the fire. 

By Wednesday evening, when the numbers began coming, it was revealed that 40 of the 49 who died in the fire were Indians. By Thursday, the toll of Malayalis reached 24, most of them in the ages between 20 and 50. Most of the bereaved families appear to have learnt the news from media reports, and not from the company or government officials, we realised when we visited three of them in Kollam.

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“I was in Kuwait too, but came back home two years ago when age wouldn't let me continue. Lukose went there in 2010, and for the last 10 years had been working as a CMC operator at the NBTC (a contracting company in Kuwait),” Mathew says. They are four brothers and 48 year old Lukose was the youngest. 

Lukose had been working in the company for 10 years and they did not even officially inform the news of his accident or death to the family, says Shaji Lukose, member of the nearby ward Kummalloor. “We had to learn the news from the news and from friends who called. We contacted the Member of Parliament [NK Premachandran] who assured us that the procedure for bringing the body home would be hastened. The legislator of Chathannoor [GS Jayalal] has also assured us all help,” Shaji adds.

Lukose with his parents, wife and daughters
Lukose with his parents, wife and daughters

The family had first heard of the death of another man in Kollam, Shameer Umarudeen of Sooranad, before hearing about Lukose. But the families did not know each other, even though the two men lived in the same building. The building, they say, was like a labour camp where the employees of NBTC were housed, with a canteen on the ground floor. Lukose lived on the second floor while it is not clear which floor Shameer was on. His friend and neighbour back home in Sooranad, Najeem, had jumped out of the building when the fire broke out, and injured himself. While he survived, Shameer did not make it.

Shameer Umarudeen
Shameer Umarudeen

Vayyankara in Sooranad North is an hour’s drive from Chathannoor. It is quieter at the house, tucked into a side lane, bearing a black flag. A few men are scattered outside the house, leaving Shameer’s father alone as he stands in a corner and nods to the visitors. Shameer was only 33 years old. Until 1.50 am on the night before the accident, he was chatting to his wife Surumi.

“They got married two years ago when Surumi was still a student. He spoke to her everyday. He’d call the parents too, his father last spoke to him two days ago,” says Shameer’s cousin Safed.

Shameer had gone to Kuwait five years ago, when he got the job of a heavy vehicle driver at the NBTC. His last visit home was nine months ago. “We heard the news about the fire by 11 am. Those who were with Najeem had informed his family. That’s how we learn too, about Shameer, that he died in hospital, after smoking the fumes from the fire and suffocating. We had sent a photo to our friends there to check, and they confirmed the death. There was no call from the company,” Safed adds. 

There has also been no official contact from the state government, though they heard from the MP and local body members. “But we heard that Minister Veena George is visiting Kuwait (this was later disallowed by the union government), and the body will be brought home as early as possible,” Safed says. Along with his parents and young wife, Shameer also leaves behind his little brother, aged 10.

A third native of Kollam, in faraway Punalur, also passed away in the fire. One of the youngest to die in the accident, Sajan George was only 29, and had just left for Kuwait one and a half months ago. Loud cries of women came from inside his house perched on top of a little lane in Vazhavila, Narickal. Sajan’s father sat silently next to priests. Devotional songs were also played by late afternoon, as neighbours and relatives visited, while the police gathered outside, perhaps in anticipation of a politician’s visit. 

Sajan George
Sajan George

Sajan was not too keen to go away to work, his cousin Joel says. “He was working as a professor at an engineering college here. But when this offer came, to work as a junior engineer at the NBTC, his family advised him to take it up.” Sajan had gone to work as always on Tuesday and came back to the building in the evening. He was asleep when the fire broke out at 4 am, the family heard from enquiring with the people they knew in Kuwait. They had learnt the news of his death only by 8pm on Wednesday, June 12. Sajan leaves behind his father, who sits silently next to the priests, his mother sitting somewhere inside the house, and his sister and family, who are settled in Australia.

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