NEW DELHI: Nearly 170 firefighters braved infernal heat for over four hours to douse the massive blaze at the National Museum of Natural History in the wee hours today that gutted its huge collection of exhibits.
The fire broke out at around 1.45 PM on the top floor of six-storeyed FICCI building in central Delhi's Mandi House area.
Initially eight fire tenders from the Connaught Place Fire Station were rushed to the spot and a team of 12 fire officials went inside the building to assess the situation.
In no time, they rang the alarm bells and a dozen more firetenders were rushed from Safdarjung and the headquaters fire stations, Deputy Director of Delhi Fire Services Atul Garg said, adding, 35 fire tenders in total and two skylifts were pressed into service in the operation that lasted for over four hours.
In such scnarios, firefighters have to brave extreme heat and temperature that may exceed 800 degrees Celsius and can even touch 1000 degrees Celisus. They are dressed in proper uniform and equipped with tecniques to meet the challenges.
However, it never stops being a difficult task, he said.
Around 170 firefighters joined the operation and they went inside the building that was virtually turned into a burning furnace, by turns, in teams comprising 8-12 officials, said former fire chief A K Sharma who was also supervising the operation.
The operation hit a critical point when six firefighters -- including an Assistant Divisional Officer, a station officer and a sub-officer -- were stuck on the fourth floor of the building.
The fire, that originated from the fifth floor, had spread till the fourth. The aim was to do damage control there. What the officers could not assess well was the rate at which the flame were spreading, Sharma said.
When they were trying to control the situation on the fourth floor dodging burning fibre ceilings which was falling down in pieces, the fire made its way to the third floor too.
They tried to retreat but the approach zone towards both staircases were blocked by burning material.
The officials gave visual signals with their flash lights and one of them managed to make an SOS call through his wireless, following which a rescue operation was launched immediately.
While two of them were rescued with the help of the skylift, the others came down using scaffoldings that was installed outside the building, part of which is undergoing repair.
They were all rushed to a hospital after having inhaled excessive smoke, and discharged later by this evening, Sharma said.
The cause of the fire is still to be ascertained and Delhi Fire Services have started preparing a report on the incident, a senior official said.
The main factors which caused the fire to spread fast included the fibre ceilings, plyboard partitions, use of plastics to cover the exhibits and the scaffolding.
Things turned worse when the fire reached the AC plant room and the audio-visual room. Adding to the woes, the fire safety mechanism of the building was not functioning.
"The fire safety systems were there but they were not functioning at the time when we tried to operate them. Had they been working, the fire would have been controlled at the earliest time," Deputy Chief Fire Officer Rajesh Panwar said.
Over 3 lakh litres of water were used for firefighting, a senior fire official said.
All exhibits, mostly herpetological specimen and taxidermied animals, were gutted in the fire, except for the ones on the ground floor where the fire could not spread.
The building also had a library, an auditorium and several office chambers.
The fire was controlled at around 6 AM, following which a cooling operation was launched, which went on for several hours. Even in the evening, smoke could be seen billowing from the top floor of the blackened structure that once used to be a favourite summer retreat for school-goers.
Established in 1978, the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi is one of two museums focusing on nature in India. It functions under the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who visited the spot, ordered a safety audit of all museums under his ministry.
A senior official at the museum said the last fire audit in the museum was conducted around two months ago. Most of the exhibits have been lost but they can be restored, except for the fossils. The fifth floor had research work and art work of prominent artistes.