Mundka fire: Toll may rise with more remains found and 29 people missing

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Fire in a building in Delhi's Mundka area. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: About 30 people could be dead from the inferno that tore through a building in Mundka and 29 are missing, officials said on Saturday, the hope that some people could still be alive in the smouldering embers of the fire that broke out the day before ebbing by the hour.

Piecing together the events of Friday, when the blaze started on the first floor of the four-storey building in outer Delhi around 4.45 pm before quickly spreading, Chief Fire Officer Atul Garg said there was only a single entry and exit point. It also did not have a fire safety certificate or fire-fighting equipment.

"The building had a single escape route which is why there were so many casualties. Twenty-seven people have died," Garg told reporters.

"The building also did not have a proper blueprint. Most of the bodies were found on the second floor."

Brothers Harish and Varun Goel, owners of a CCTV camera and router manufacturing and assembling company in whose office the fire is suspected to have started, have been arrested, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Outer) Sameer Sharma said. Their father is missing.

The building's owner Manish Lakra will soon be arrested, police officials said.

An estimated 29 people are unaccounted for, they added.

As rescuers looked for survivors and distraught relatives gathered outside the building in the congested outer Delhi industrial locality and hospital, officials said charred human remains were found during cooling operations in the morning. This could take the toll from 27 to a possible 30, they said.

Referring to the remains found, Garg said it is difficult to ascertain whether they are of one person or more. He added that it is suspected an explosion in an air-conditioner may have triggered the fire.

The intensity of the fire has made it difficult to identify the bodies with police officials saying eight of the 27 killed can be named -- Tania Bhushan, Mohini Pal, Yashoda Devi, Ranju Devi, Vishal, Drishti, Kailash Jyani and Amit Jayani.

Ankit, who works at an office in the building, recounted his escape.

"I am very fortunate that I am alive. I could have also lost my life. A motivational session was being held on the second floor of the building when we noticed the blaze. We broke the glass windows and somehow managed to escape," he said.

A police official said there is no information on the motivational speaker or his whereabouts.

The soot blackened walls of the building and the piles of rubble told their own story of the intensity of a fire, the largest since a blaze at a factory in the Anaj Mandi area in December 2019 killed 44 people and the second largest since the Uphaar Cinema tragedy in 1997 in which 59 people lost their lives.

Delhi Lt Gov Anil Baijal said he was "deeply pained" by the loss of lives and called for immediate steps to prevent such incidents in the future. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who visited the spot with his deputy Manish Sisodia, announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh each for the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for those injured.

As the day slipped into evening, the families held on to hope that those missing were still alive in the debris.

Twelve of those injured are undergoing treatment at the Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital nearby.

Families, some in tears and others too stunned to react, thronged the hospital for some news, any news. Many waited for identification of the charred bodies, hoping desperately that their loved ones were not among them.

Ludhiana resident Aman Kumar broke down while talking about his fiancée Drishti, who worked in the building.

"I was supposed to marry her in November this year," the 30-year-old said tearfully when asked who was admitted in the hospital.

His relative Jatin said Drishti had died but in the tragedy but her body is yet to be identified.

"We got to know about the incident yesterday about 5.30 pm and rushed to Delhi from Ludhiana. She didn't survive," he said.

Kavita, 17, a resident of Madanpur village, was looking for her sister who was inside the building. She worked in the CCTV manufacturing unit and was the only earning member of the family.

"My sister was at work when we got to know about the fire. I was told that the building was on fire and my sister might be trapped inside. After coming here (hospital) I found that my sister's name was not there in the list of people admitted to the emergency section," Kavita said.

"I am hoping she may have survived," she added.

The tragedies were many.

Ajit Tiwari said his 21-year-old sister Monika had started working for the company just a month back.

"She received her first salary on Thursday. We got to know about the fire at 5 pm, but had no idea that the blaze broke out at her office building. When she did not return home by 7 pm, we started looking for her," he said.

Monika lives with her two brothers and a sister in Delhi's Agar Nagar. Another woman was seen frantically looking for her daughter.

"My daughter Pooja has been working at the CCTV camera packaging unit for the last three months. We live in Mubarakpur and got to know about the incident at 9 pm. She has a cut mark below her left eye,” she said.

Videos that emerged on social media showed thick plumes of smoke billowing from top of the building as people trapped inside could be heard crying for help while some jumped down in a desperate attempt to escape the flames.

Some could be seen using ropes to escape.

Deepa Verma, Director of the Forensic Science Laboratory, Rohini, said two teams, including senior experts, have been working at the spot.

S K Gupta, who is heading operations at the site, said body remains at fire sites are very difficult to detect, collect and handle.

"Burned exhibits like body tissues at the scene are often modified to a similar appearance. Bones, in particular, become discoloured, brittle, and highly fragmented," Gupta said.

According to DCP Sharma, an FIR has been registered against the owners of the CCTV camera packaging unit under sections 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide), 120 (concealing design to commit offence punishable with imprisonment) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

All the floors of the building were being used by the same company, he said. PTI

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