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Kolkata fire toll 24, 10 missing; 2 Caretakers arrested
Published on 25 Mar. 2010 12:03 AM IST
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The death toll in the Stephen Court building inferno here rose to 24 Wednesday as firefighters discovered more charred bodies and police arrested two caretakers of the century-old heritage structure that everyone now admits was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Amid charges of collusion by civic authorities that allowed two illegal floors to be added to the iconic building in the city’s heart, authorities said 10 people who were in the complex when flames consumed it Tuesday afternoon remained missing.
A dozen of the 20 people who suffered burns in the horrific fire were in hospital. Many were traumatized by what they saw -- the leaping flames, frightened people who jumped to death, dramatic escapes and rescues, and official lethargy.
On Wednesday, after appearing to be dithering, the police filed a complaint against the owner of the sprawling building and arrested two of its caretakers, Tarun Bagaria and Ramshankar Singh.
The arrests followed widespread allegations that the building lacked safety measures and that the only fire escape was shut, preventing people from fleeing the flames.
The building, built by Armenian Stephen Arathoon in 1910, was mired in darkness and flooded with water sprayed to douse the blaze that raged for hours. It presented an eerie site even as workers cleared the debris.
The Flury’s Tea Room, restaurant Peter Cat and other eating joints in the building were closed. A few hundred onlookers stood on the Park Street, which was Wednesday thrown open for traffic but still lacked the normal bustle.
Charred computer parts and skeletal remains of household and office items added to the rubble. Police cordoned off the eight-storey building. Parts of its concrete peeled off from the worst hit top floors.
While four victims were found dead Tuesday night, 14 badly burnt bodies were discovered early Wednesday from the sixth floor, a police officer said. Six people died after jumping from the upper floors in a desperate bid to save themselves.
All 24 bodies have been identified and handed over to family members.
West Bengal Home secretary Ardhendu Sen, who met the Kolkata police chief and civic and fire brigade officials, said more bodies could be found.
“It will take some time (to clear the rubble) given the way in which the building is affected. We cannot do it fast. We have to be careful as there are chances of recovering more bodies,” he said.
“Second, we will identify the portion of the building that is damaged and pull it down.”
The two caretakers were arrested after the fire brigade slapped a police complaint against the building owners, Joint Commissioner of Police Javed Shamim told IANS.
A six-member forensic team visited the spot and collected samples. “We cannot say anything now. Our findings now are only partial,” said one of them.
Meanwhile, a top official alleged that the two top floors of the building, which had borne the brunt of the fire, were constructed illegally.
This was corroborated by a sobbing Malini Mehra, who grew up in the building and whose parents still live there although they were not inside when the tragedy occurred.
She alleged that nobody objected to the illegal construction. “This was an accident waiting to happen,” she said.
In the state assembly, Fire Services Minister Pratim Chatterjee claimed that even the minimum fire safety measures were lacking in Stephen Court.
The Trinamool Congress and Congress walked out of the house after their demand for a discussion on the tragedy after cancelling the Question Hour was turned down by the speaker.
A fireman, tired after working non-stop for over 24 hours, yelled at a scribe who asked why there were no nets to catch people falling from upper floors.
“Nowhere in India will you see such nets,” said the firefighter.
Friends and relatives of the dead and the seriously injured crowded the SSKM Hospital as charred bodies were brought from the Park Street building Wednesday morning.
So unrecognizable were some victims that they could be identified only by their rings, wrist watches or chains.
Twins Jay and Vijay Khandelwal were among the dead. Both were 18.
“They were born on the same day and died together,” said their devastated father.

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