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Serum Institute fire: 200 labourers jump from windows to live; Rs 25 lakh announced for kin of dead

As the fire broke out on the third floor of the building, the labourers started running out of the building. However, a few could not as the fire started spreading to every corner of the building.

Published: 21st January 2021 10:56 PM  |   Last Updated: 22nd January 2021 12:04 AM   |  A+A-

Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar at fire spot at Serum Institute of India, Pune. (Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

MUMBAI: A quick decision saved more than 200 people trapped in the Serum Institute of India's Manjari premises after a massive fire broke out at the facility on Thursday afternoon killing five people.

As the fire broke out on the third floor of the building, the 200 odd labourers started running out of the building. However, a few could not as the fire started spreading to every corner of the building and other floors as well.

“Our way to the exit was covered with thick smoke. As we could not see anything, we rushed to the windows and started jumping out. While we managed to get out, those who could not charred to death. The quick decision was crucial at that time,” said a labourer.

Out of five who died in the fire mishap, two each were from Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra and one from Bihar. They are Rama Shankar Harijan (UP), Bipin Saroj (UP), Sushil Kumar Pandey (Bihar), Mahendra Ingle (Pune) and Pratik Pashte (Pune). All were contractual labourers and doing electrical works in the the building that caught fire. 

ALSO READ | Serum Institute blaze: Five dead so far; Covishield facility unaffected

Avinash Kumar, one of the contractual labourers working in the five-storey building at the time of the incident, said moment the fire broke out he along with some others quickly ran away and saved their lives.

"Moment we saw smoke emanating from somewhere in the building, we escaped from the floor where we were working," said Kumar.

However, all were not so lucky as charred bodies of five labourers were later recovered from the fifth floor of the structure by fire brigade personnel at the SII premises in the Manjari area.

"Two of our colleagues - Bipin Kumar and Rama Shankar - could not come out in time and got trapped inside one of the floors (the fire affected 4th & 5th floors)," said Avinash Kumar.

Another worker, Sudhanshu Kumar, said the fire broke out at around 2.15 pm.

"Moment the fire broke out, we ran towards safety. However, some of our colleagues got trapped in the fire," Sudhanshu Kumar added.

"There were 200 to 300 workers in the building and they were engaged in insulation, sliding and other building works," he said.

Each level of the structure consists of two floors, Sudhanshu Kumar added.

"Some workers jumped from one floor to another to save their lives,"other," he said.

Asked how the blaze started, Sudhanshu Kumar said he just heard shots about fire breaking out.

"We just ran away to save our lives. However, two of our colleagues could not come out in time," he added.

After visiting the spot, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said the fire brigade had found out charred bodies of five persons.

“The expert team will inspecct the spot on Friday and send the report. Only after that, we will be able to say the real cause behind the fire. The team will visit each floor of the six- storey building,” Pawar said.

Meanwhile, SII announced a compensation of Rs 25 lakh to kin of each of the persons who died in the fire tragedy in addition to the mandated amount.

"Today is an extremely sorrowful day for all of us at Serum Institute of India. Regrettably, there were losses of lives in the fire that broke out in our under installation facility situated at the Special Economic Zone at Manjri," said Cyrus S. Poonawalla, Chairman and Managing Director, SII.

"We are deeply saddened and offer our condolences to the families of the departed. In this regard, we will be offering compensation of Rs 25 lakhs to each of the families, in addition to the mandated amount as per the norms," SII tweeted.

Covishield vaccine production won't be hit due to the fire, Poonawalla said.

The Manjari facility is where the Covishield vaccines used in the nationwide inoculation drive against the pandemic are made.

The building where fire broke out is one km from the Covishield vaccine manufacturing unit, sources said.

"I would like to reassure all governments & the public that there would be no loss of #COVISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies at @SerumInstIndia," Poonawalla tweeted.

Mayor Murlidhar Mohol said fire officials recovered the five bodies during the cooling operation.

Ajit Pawar also said the state government has ordered a probe into the fire.

The fire, which broke out at 2.45 pm on the fourth and fifth floors of the building, was brought under control in two hours, police said.

Deputy Commissioner of Police Namrata Patil told PTI that nine people were evacuated from the building.

Viral visuals from the site showed smoke billowing out from the Serum Institute facility.

Chief Fire Officer Prashant Ranpise said 15 water tankers were pressed into action and the fire was brought under control around 4.30 pm.

"The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. Furniture, wiring, cabins were gutted. No major machinery or instruments were stored on the floors where the fire broke out," he said.

"Anguished by the loss of lives due to an unfortunate fire at the @SerumInstIndia. In this sad hour, my thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. I pray that those injured recover at the earliest," Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

Modi was briefly in the first floor of the building during his visit to the Serum Institute of India (SII) in November last year to review the status of the vaccine candidate, SII sources said.

Pawar said, "I have taken information from the Pune Municipal Corporation about the incident and instructed locals officials to carry out a detailed probe into the fire."

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray told reporters that as per initial information, an electrical fault caused the fire.

"As per initial information, the fire did not erupt at the unit where the COVID-19 vaccine is being produced, but in the unit where the BCG vaccine is produced," Thackeray said.

Asked about claims that the fire was due to sabotage, Thackeray quipped, "They (those making the claim) need to be administered the vaccine of patience."

Thackeray spoke to Adar Poonawalla about the fire and will be visiting the building on Friday, a CMO official said.

Ajit Pawar visited the building on Thursday evening, another official said.

Serum Institute of India Pvt Ltd is the world's largest vaccine manufacturer by number of doses produced and sold globally (more than 1.5 billion doses) which includes Polio vaccine as well as Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hib, BCG, r-Hepatitis B, Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccines, as per the company's website.

Ajit Pawar also said that after dousing flames in the evening, a small fire broke out at the top floor of the (five-storeyed) building, but it was extinguished immediately.

Pawar said it is difficult to speculate on how the fire broke out and added a different team will launch an investigation on Friday to find out the cause.

"Initially, it was told that there was no human loss. The reason behind it was that all employees of the SII were safe. However, on last two floors, some contractual workers were doing their work," he added.

He said during the colling off process, when fire brigade officials went to the top floor, they found five completely bodies charred.

Pawar said there is 99 per cent possibility that there is no casualty beyond five.

"We are not saying 100 per cent because right now there is no light and smoke is still emanating from the (top) floor," he said.

Pawar said fire brigade teams did a good job during the cooling-off operation.

He confirmed that production of Covishield, the SII vaccine against COVID-19 which is being used in the nationwide inoculation drive, has not been affected.

"We have been told that there is a facility nearby (fire site) where the Rotavirus vaccine is being currently stored."

"They were planning to produce more Rotavirus vaccine and preparation to create a facility for the same was going on in the building," he added.

Pawar said Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his recent visit to the SII, had toured the first and second floors of the same building.

"The fire broke out at the floors above the third floor. Each level comprised two floors (20 feet floor)," he said.

Pawar said fire and energy audits of the affected facility will be carried out on Friday.

"I was told that after the fire broke out, water sprinklers fitted in the building, were activated. However, considering the fire's intensity, the water sprinklers were of no use," the Deputy Chief Minister added.

"Investigators will check whether due safety measures were taken or not. or whether guidelines related to SEZs were followed or not," he said.

Some people are saying that the fire took place due to welding works which were going on in the facility, Pawar said.

"However, all these discussions are based on hearsay. Only a detailed investigation will ascertain if sparks emanating during welding works caused the fire," he added.

Meanwhile, NCP president Sharad Pawar termed the fire at the SII premises as "very tragic and unfortunate" and condoled the death of five people in the incident.

(With PTI Inputs)



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