MUMBAI: Twenty-four people were killed when a rain-sodden 117-year-old building crumbled in the busiest part of south Bombay at 8.30 Thursday morning.
The count of the dead kept ticking as firemen clawed aside ancient masonry and twisted steel in a desperate rescue effort hampered by congestion on the approach ways.
Thirteen people were extricated alive in the rescue effort all day but late in the evening a few more people were feared trapped under the debris.
Chief fire officer Prabhakar Rahangadale told New Indian Express that nine families were said to be living in the Hussaini Building, a structure that had been certified as unfit for occupation back in 2011.
Local residents said people were living on four out of the six floors. One floor housed a community kitchen and the other served as a godown. A play school functioned out of the basement. Its children had not arrived when the building collapsed.
"There was a massive bang and then just dust and smoke all around. It was only when the dust settled that we realized that the building had collapsed," said Amina Sheikh, who lives next door.
As the fire brigade evacuated people from the adjacent buildings to make room, phone calls kept coming to neighbours from people trapped in the rubble.
Ambulances struggled to speed the injured survivors to the hospital as a crowd of bystanders clogged the roads leading to the building. Soon ministers came by to commiserate and promise relief cheques to the victims' families. These included the chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. Opposition figures too turned up a bit later to ask aggravating questions.
The collapse was the second in Mumbai in a little over a month. Last month, 17 people were killed when a four-storey building collapsed in the eastern suburb of Ghatkopar.
In Mumbai, the collapse of buildings certified as unfit for occupation is all too frequent. People in the neighbourhood of the Hussaini Building said about 40 people lived in cramped rooms in the old structure although the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) offered them transition accommodation.
The Hussaini was one of the 380 buildings that were assigned to redevelopment. A trust called the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust was to have undertaken redevelopment of the structure but succeeded in relocating only seven families. There were still 13 tenants -- 12 residential and one commercial -- occupying it when it collapsed.
An inquiry will now be conducted into the tragedy and chief minister Fadnavis said the probe will take into its scope the factors why Mumbai people continue to live in dilapidated buildings.
The leader of the opposition in the state's Legislative Council, Dhananjay Munde said it was necessary for the government to address the flaws in the redevelopment policy.
People in Mumbai are reluctant to leave dilapidated buildings because they fear they would lose their claim to the property.
Lucky escape for playschool kids
About 50 children had a narrow escape when the Hussaini Building collapsed some half an hour before their play school in the five-storey structure was to start the day. The school functioned on the ground floor of the building.
The father of a two-year-old play schooler said he saw the building crumble like a pack of cards. ""I came down from my house to drop my child at the playgroup and saw the structure come down in a heap," he said.
Some left in the nick of time
Twenty-five-year-old Mohammed Rafiq managed to dash out of the Husainiwala Building moments before it collapsed. He had come here Wednesday night to collect his belongings before leaving for his native place in UP on Thursday morning.
Some people in his room were brushing their teeth when they heard someone cry outside, "Run... the building is about to crumble."
"I ran for my life. I left my phone and clothes behind," said Rafiq.
Voices in anger
The tragedy, coming after two days of lashing by the rain, gave an edge to Mumbaikars’ anger. They blame the Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for the dislocation seen this week.
Vinod Sampat, housing activist
The MCGM has been ruled by Shiv Sena for two decades. The need of the day is to fix accountability. The BMC (the other name for MCGM) and its rulers have not learnt any lesson from similar events in the past. They are trying to pass the buck to someone else.
Sucheta Dalal, journalist
Attempts are being made to encroach upon green spaces. The trans-harbour link, which has been hanging fire for 65 years, is moving slower than the underground Metro. Do we know how many trees have become weaker due to underground digging for the metro?
S. Balakrishnan, journalist-turned-activist
For several months, the Bombay High Court, which has stayed all fresh construction, is waiting for a report from the BMC on its action plan for tackling the huge problem of garbage in the city. Even the HC is unable to move the BMC into action.