Suresh Kumar withdrew to a corner, shying away from the sizzling afternoon sun as much as from the glare of the media cameras that crowded the Mundka lane in northwest Delhi after a fire in an illegal factory claimed at least 27 lives on Friday.
Suresh, 35, a towaway minitruck driver, was weary from recounting ad nauseam to sundry media crews how he and local shopkeepers rescued “50-70 people” from the burning commercial building. “I have been recounting the rescue sequence since morning, no more,” he told a journalist who had shoved a mic in his face on Saturday afternoon. “I need peace. How can you ask me to speak? I lost two of my friends in the fire.”
Suresh was among the first responders at the scene, helping survivors escape the smoke and the nascent fire. Some residents and shopkeepers had entered the building when the fire started, seeking to get out the nearly 100 people trapped inside. But the fire quickly intensified, forcing them back. Suresh then parked his towaway, which he operates for Chaudhary Generators and Crane Services, situated next to the factory, on the laneside of the building. His fellow responders helped hoist ladders atop the minitruck which a few survivors on the first and second floors used to climb down. Some people on the third floor slid down ropes to safety.
“We could not help others on the third floor because ladders could not reach that far. People were screaming, ‘Save us’. It was frightening,” Suresh said, adding that mattresses were spread on the road to catch the falling survivors.
A father of two schoolgoing children, Suresh has been working for Chaudhary Generator and Crane Services for the past 15 years. Originally from Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, he lives in a rented flat in Mundka behind the illegal factory. Like so many migrant workers in Delhi, Suresh said he came to the city all those years ago with the dream of making a better life for himself and his family. It’s a work in progress.
Had Suresh dealt with such an emergency situation before? “By God’s grace, I hadn’t seen anything like that before,” he said. “My crane was standing outside our shop. The only humane thing to do was to use it to save lives. You would have done the same. And you don’t need experience to do that.”
As the fire grew stronger, though, Suresh had to remove the vehicle for fear of a blast in the fuel tank. “Had the vehicle remained parked for long, it would have been a bigger tragedy due to the CNG blast,” he said.
For Suresh, it’s a great personal tragedy, having lost two of his friends. “We used to chat and pull each other’s legs. Joke about anything and everything. I don’t think I will be able to eat today or tomorrow,” he said, choking up.
Another crane to the rescue
Half an hour into the fire, Dayanand Tiwari and Anil Tiwari happened to drive past in their crane, owned by New Komal Crane Services. Seeing an acquaintance at the site, the crane operators drove over the road divider to reach the building. Dayanand parked the vehicle in front of the building and extended its boom to reach the shattered windows. A video on social media shows them helping rescue survivors who had clung to the crane boom. The fire had intensified by now. “We reached the site at 4.25 pm. We broke the glass windows to save more lives,” said Anil, a father of two from Uttar Pradesh’s Deoria.
Anil, who has worked in Delhi since 2001, said it was not unusual for him and Dayanand to respond to emergency situations, but they hadn’t confronted one before like the Mundka fire.
Sunil, 23, whose father owns New Komal Crane Services, said more people could have been saved had there been no traffic jam in the area. “After I learnt about the fire, I accompanied another crane to the spot. But the crane was stuck in the jam. By the time we got there, at around 5pm, a fire brigade vehicle was already there,” he said.
Delhi’s fire services chief, Atul Garg, had claimed at a press briefing on Saturday that firefighters reached the building within 18 minutes of receiving the first call. But eyewitnesses disputed this, saying the firefighters didn’t arrive until about an hour after the fire started. In any case, it’s likely that the toll could have been higher if Suresh, Anil, Dayanand and other citizens hadn’t responded to the situation the way they did.