CHENNAI: In a freak accident on Saturday night, a 38-year-old woman allegedly suffered an electric shock as she was walking down a Choolaimedu street, which has an underground electric cable, and in moments was engulfed in flames.
It is unclear what caused the fire although there was an electric junction box nearby. On Sunday morning, J Leema Rose, succumbed to injuries at Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital to which she had been admitted with 79 per cent burns.
Tangedco officials said they had sought CCTV footage as they had never heard of electricity ‘leaking’ from an underground cable and could find the cause of the mishap only after a thorough investigation. Residents said electric boxes in the locality often let off sparks, with complaints to the electricity department going in vain.
Leema, a native of Tirunelveli district, resided on New West Street at Choolaimedu. She was part of the housekeeping staff at a private college in Arumbakkam.
Neighbours said her husband died 10 years ago. She lived with her son, Lawrence (16), who is intellectually disabled. Choolaimedu police registered a case of unnatural death and are awaiting her son’s return from Tirunelveli district.
“At around 8 pm, we were sitting by the road when Leema came to the grocery store in the street. She was speaking on the phone as she walked past the electric box. Suddenly, she froze as though she had suffered an electric shock and within moments we heard a loud noise, saw sparks and she was engulfed in flames. People from the grocery store rushed and covered her with a blanket to put out the fire,” said P Aruna, who saw the tragedy unfold as she was feeding her child.
Residents, shocked by the fire, ran in different directions and some, who were nearby, fell on the road sustaining minor injuries.
Neighbours said Leema was half-burnt but managed to walk a short distance and sit in front of the grocery shop.
“She told us to contact her son and sisters in her home town. Meanwhile, an ambulance came and, with the help of attenders, she climbed into the vehicle herself,” said Banumathy, who lives next door.
Leema was taken to the Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital where she was admitted at the ICU and succumbed on Sunday morning.
Her son Lawrence, who dropped out of high school, was working at some eateries. A few months ago, Leema sent him to their home town in Tirunelveli district to stay with her sisters.“She was looking for a job for him and was discussing that on the phone when the incident happened,” said Aruna.
‘Cable not buried well’
The congested street, right next to an open canal filled with drainage, has many such electric boxes and residents said the boxes would ‘burst’ - making a loud noise and sparking fire -- and there would be a power cut in the locality.
“This happens especially during the rainy season. Two months ago during a heavy downpour, another box burst and a tree nearby caught on fire. The electricity department staff did not come to the spot until we went and picked them up,” said Arul Kumar, an autorickshaw driver in the locality.
The residents also claimed that the workers had not buried the underground cable properly. “Instead of digging the ground for three feet, they simply dig for half a foot and close the cable with sand instead of tar,” claimed Arul Kumar.
When asked about the incident, a Tangedco official said, “We have asked the police for CCTV footage for clarity. Theoretically, there is no possibility of a leak from the underground wire that would lead to a blast of fire. The wire was not protruding from the ground and it was sufficiently buried to avoid a leak. There is no possibility for electrocution as the woman was wearing slippers.”
“When we dug into the ground, we found there was a short circuit in the wire but are not sure how that led to a fire. There was no problem with the electric box when we checked it on Sunday morning. Only after further examination will we know what happened as this is one of the rarest cases, the likes of which we have never witnessed before,” the official added.