CHENNAI: T Nagar, the retail hub of the city, was abuzz even before sunrise on Wednesday after a fire broke out in the wee hours of the morning at a leading textile and jewelry retail shop, exposing dangers of poor safety precautions and planning. Such were the flames that fire service personnel could not fully douse it until the time of this report.
The telephone at the T Nagar fire office rang at around 4 am. It is suspected to have started due to a short circuit in the basement of Chennai Silks, where silvers were retailed. The fire officers, who first arrived on site, noted that the staff had been trying to use extinguishers to put the fire out since about 3 am.
“We doused fire in some parts of the ground floor, and entered through the rear. Within minutes, we realised the fire had spread to the rest of the building, as structures started collapsing down on us,” said one of the first fire officers to enter the premises.
He added that they immediately left the building, as it was too risky and had to engage sky lifts to rescue trapped employees instead. “We rescued 11 people at least. Seniors officials said 14 people were rescued in total,” said the official with pride. The personnel also managed to retrieve about 25 LPG cylinders before the fire spread, which could have magnified the impact.
According to the fire officer, what was a small fire in the basement blew out of proportion only after 8 am. A passer-by concurred with this. “I was walking near Chennai Silk’s entrance in the morning and thought it was a small fire in the basement, and that they would open by 11 am,” said R Ramakrishnan, a resident of T Nagar.
But by 9 am, it had spread till the third floor, and fire tenders and water lorries crammed into Pinchala Subramaniam street that runs beside the building.
While the basement has silvers, the ground and first floor has gold in one half and clothing in the other. All floors above are said to have only clothing, except the top floor, where the canteen is located. Workers and owners of neighbouring shops were unaware of the fire until they showed up on-site. “While we empathise with Chennai Silks, all our business, too, took a dip today,” said the managing director of a rival textile retail outlet.
Police said residents of the locality within 100 meters of the building had been advised to evacuate the place, and the general public has been advised not to visit the spot.
By 11 am, the fire spread to most parts of the building, and thick smoke billowed out of every crevice. The South Usman Road flyover outside the building was blocked, and fire fighting vehicles hosed the building down from atop the flyover. Meanwhile, fire fighters behind were using the sky lift to douse fire in several parts of the building.
About 15 fire tender vehicles were trying to quell the fire from all sides. Personnel broke windows and glass panes to release locked up pressure, while some were drilling parts of the concrete wall as there weren’t enough windows in the building. Every now and then, loud thuds were heard from inside the building suggesting that some structures were breaking or collapsing. However, most of the activity was not visible outside as smoke engulfed the building from inside.