Tag : gurgaon
Monday, 24th September 2012: there was a fire in my building.
Monday morning, I woke up to a lazy start to another week of holidays at home. The weekend had been choco-blocked with excitement since I had nine of my friends come and stay over. A quick summary of how I spent Sunday – slept at 4am, woke up at 8am to a room full of nine people, two puppies and a massive feast of a breakfast. Headed to Damdama Lake (with a few stopovers on the way as it happens), took a mini-boat ride to get to a camp where we were going to take part in off-road adventures. Braced a hot, sunny 30 degrees Celsius (felt like a lot more) summer afternoon for too long, while the nine of us took turns to get comfortable with 4x4s on dirt tracks. Headed back home to some chilled lemonade and ice-tea, and then jumped into our swimming pool to cool off. That night, sleep was a wonderful gift! The next morning, however, my body (not surprisingly), was quite hungover!
I rolled out of bed, this fateful Monday morning and knew I had to go try out the massage parlour (on the ground floor of our building), which my mother had been raving about for a few months now. Mom was sitting in the living room of our nineteenth floor flat, with a friend who she had gotten in touch with after many years. She said the massage parlour would shut in about an hour so I should head down right away. I went back to my room to get changed, but laziness got the best of me and I decided to have another quick lie-down before I headed out. A couple of minutes later mom came into my room,
Mom – “You can’t go down for the massage now, maybe go later in the evening.”
me – “Uhmm, why the change? Did something happen?”
Mom – “Ya, we just saw some smoke come out from the ground floor. Looks like it might be coming from that room. It doesn’t look that serious so go later in the evening”.
From how casually mom said it, I didn’t think much of it and turned back to enjoy my power-nap. Curiousity got the better of me though, so I got up to go have a look. It’s a slightly uncomfortable feeling starting down nineteen floors and seeing a lot of smoke churning out from the ground floor. As though, (well in a sense it is true), that the foundations of your building are on fire. Mom followed suit, and immediately remarked that the volume of smoke had multiplied, a little too quickly.
It didn’t help that everyone we could see had panic all over them and all the visible building security guards for the area, were running helter-skelter, helping to put the fire out. No sign of a Fire Brigade though. I quickly picked up my phone and called 101 (the Fire Emergency hotline for India). I mentioned my address and said there’s a fire in my building, and before I could say anything else, the man on the other end cut me short and said, “Madam ji, aapko toh Gurgaon ka number milana chaihiye thaa” (Madam, you should have called the Gurgaon helpline number). I didn’t have the local fire brigade number so asked for it. He replied, “Achcha likhiye number.” (Okay here, write down the number). And over a fairly unclear line, after repeating the numbers three or four times, I got the number. “0..1…2…4… 2…3…9…2…1…0…1…”. I quickly dialed the local Fire Brigade number and gave the address and said there’s a fire..and was once again cut short by the man on the other end saying, “Haan, message dus minute pehle mil gaya hai” (Yes, we got the message ten minutes ago), and he hung up. The fire had already grown and smoke was now coming from the first floor as well.
Mom said we should evacuate, and we turned to head out and the didi at home opened the door to head down, and she screamed in panic. I looked over to see, the water pipes above our ceiling right outside our main door had burst and there was a rapidly growing waterfall gushing from above. Soon after, that ceiling collapsed and the water was gushing into our flat. If the thought of panicking hadn’t crossed us before, it definitely did now! So the fire wasn’t worrying enough, the chance of our flat getting flooded, was definitely a very serious reality!
The next few moments of how everyone reacted is a blur, but we all went to first stop the first real threat – to put all the power sockets in the house off. I picked up the puppies, who were now whining in panic, and took them with me into my room. My room was going to be the first to get flooded so I quickly rolled up my bathroom matt and shoved it against the door. I didn’t know how much it would help keep the water out but even if it delayed it a bit, it might save something. I cursed my love for a lounge-style room, with everything including the bed, cupboards, tables, if not on, then very close to the floor! As quickly as I could I put as much of my most important stuff, as high as I could. Somewhere wondering if I’m going see any of this again.
I picked a bag to fill with some stuff that I could carry with me, and it was a scary realization that, that question we would ask each other hypothetically when we were younger – “If there was a fire in your house, what would you carry?”, today I was actually asking myself, and there really was a fire. Didn’t have time to go into deep thought on that one – just got the puppies on leashes, stuffed the bag, got everyone out of the house and headed down nineteen floors of stairs.
The stairs were completely soaked with water, that still kept flowing down. We tried to avoid the waterfall outside the main door, but a futile waste of time that was! The entire fire escape was a waterfall on it’s own! We hadn’t even reached the floor below and we were drenched! The puppies were whining, all of us were holding onto the railing to keep from slipping and mom just alerted me to a new possibly very high risk we had just taken. Where the water pipes were, was also the electric unit for the building. When the water pipes burst, the water spilled onto the wires before anything else. So now that we were in the water, if any electric current flowed through the wires, we would all be electrocuted. That’s not a comforting realization, since we were still in the water and had sixteen more water-laden flights of stairs to scale. On the other hand, since we were still alive, maybe there’s some shades of comfort there?
We kept making our way down the stairs to find people we met on the way had no clue to how serious the situation was! They were casually wandering near their flats wondering why we were in such a rush! So as we climbed down the entire building, we were the only fire alarm that was sounding in the building! By the time we reached the fifth or sixth floor – there was smoke everywhere. The puppies panicked before we could really see or smell the smoke in the air, so I knew were getting close to the fire.
Now would be a good time to remind you, that we had no idea what was burning or where exactly the fire was. We had only seen the rising smoke, nineteen floors above. We stuck close, holding onto the railing for balance, and holding onto our breaths not knowing how long the smokey cover was going to last. All we could see now was growing amounts of damage on the walls, and the grey smokey cover growing thicker. The noise level grew as we got closer to the ground floor, and when we finally reached the last flight of stairs – we could see a handful of people helping to put the fire out, smashed windows at the end of the hallway, broken glass and debris lined the floor.
This is where the fire had been or was possibly still there. I didn’t get time to look around – I just had to find the exit and make sure we all got safe and sound before anything else. I was first in line with two puppies and seven people behind me. The smoke was burning my eyes and I could sense it starting to choke my throat, and I knew the people could hold their breaths while we could out and I didn’t want to find out how the puppies would deal with this scenario.
Luckily someone spotted us heading down the stairs amidst the chaos and signaled for the exit door to be opened quickly so that we could get out. Puppies wrapped in our arms, we rushed out over an uneven surface laden with ash, broken glass, debris and not to forget the continuing waterfall from our floor. The lights were out and it was dark, except for the thick cloud of smoke and silhouettes of a few people, there was not much that could be seen.
Luckily I had enough fire drills in the UK to know what to do incase of a fire. [After things calmed down, I heard lots of aunties complaining how the event was so badly managed that the elevators weren’t working during the fire!] We went and sat a safe distance away from the building, and decided to check if anyone managing the situation/chaos knew about the water pipes bursting on our floor. More so, to make sure they keep the power off in those electric wires. No one had any clue that the water pipes had burst, and as we found out later, as soon as the fire started, a resident had (luckily) urged the management to shut off the power of the entire building. It’s a scary thought trying to guess what could have happened alternatively.
We sat by a little patch of grass near the main gates of our residential area watching people put the fire out, wondering how we can help. The security guards were running from one end of the compound to the other end where the fire was, with the water coolers (often seen at camping sites) to use to put the fire out. A garden hose pipe stretched from the parking lot to the building with a line of men using the domino effect to signal the water tap to be turned on or off.
I didn’t have these answers to my questions then, but here’s what had actually happened – the fire started because of a short-circuit that got left unattended next to, or in the room I was supposed to go for my massage. It caused a fire that grew unchecked. The smart resident must have seen the fire at this point and pushed for the electricity in the building to be put off. Then, the sprinklers were activated, and the water pipes couldn’t handle the pressure and they burst. Had the last two sequence of events been the other way around, it could have been fatal!
Since the water pipes had burst, the water supply that was supposed to be there in case of a fire, was not available (because it was busy feeding the waterfall on the fire escape). Additionally, since the buildings power supply had been disconnected, the fire alarms didn’t go off because they needed electricity to run; and luckily this episode didn’t happen at night, because there wouldn’t have been any light on the fire escape either!
While we pieced together the actual serious of events that had led to us sitting on the patch of grass wondering whether the fire was going to get our flat or the flood, the incredible ‘jugaards’ of all those who tried putting the fire out was successful. We kept ushering the management to look into the water pipe disaster on our floor and in a couple of hours the situation seemed to have calmed down. People started making their way towards the building and we braced ourselves to climb nineteen floors. It was now about three hours since I first saw the smoke, and just then, the Fire Brigade arrived.
I was speechless then, as I am now while I recollect the events. I still don’t know how to comment on the Fire Brigade arriving so late. I was told that the people who serve in the Fire Brigade are absolutely dedicated and earnest, and it’s the traffic in India that doesn’t help them get anywhere and it’s really sad but possibly true. I do know though, that if the fire truck had reached in time, the fire would only have been in one or two rooms maximum, and not the entire ground floor and more.
If I dwell on the what if-s, or consider any alternate scenarios, there’s no doubt that we just get extremely lucky with this situation. We made our way up the stairs, nineteen floors. Phew! The puppies were too scared to climb and kept slipping on the water and debris laden staircase so, it was nineteen floors up and puppies in hand! We got to our floor and assessed damage and began the clean up process. My rolling-the-bathroom-mat against the door technique kept the water out of my room – yippee!! Luckily we had time enough to put stuff on high ground before we evacuated so that damage was minimal. (That was a relief!) We didn’t have power in the building till the damage was repaired, and most importantly till the water from the electrical units was cleared. That also meant the elevators weren’t working for a few days (I live on the nineteenth floor, remember?)!
Overall, the ground floor was completely burnt, there floors immediately above had some damage, and no one was seriously injured. I was still a bit shaken to be honest. At this point I knew everything was going to be okay, but the last time I was in my flat, the situation looked so bad that I wasn’t sure what I would see here when I got back in next. That’s quite scary when you’re living it, not half as much when you’re just imagining it.
Now here’s the bit where you would normally expect a -moral of the story or a smart quote that I’m supposed to end with. But I don’t know why I wanted to write all of this down. Maybe someday I will. If I had to look back and think about what I learned from this? I don’t know whether there’s a lesson in the fact that laziness saved me from being in the room where the fire started? Maybe it’s payback for the amount I cribbed when hundreds of a false fire alarms went off during my years in London. I ended up climbing the nineteen floors five times that day – so maybe I’ve learnt I don’t like living on top floors anymore! Maybe it’s as simple as being more careful with unattended electric sockets or a bigger question, whether high-rise buildings are equipped to handle the safety of it’s residents in such scenarios? It could even well be a lesson for all of us, that the next time you see a fire truck or an ambulance rushing to get somewhere, we make more of an effort to let them pass?
I guess that’s the good thing with blogs – you can post your thoughts below and we can all learn from each other?! 🙂
Like the other photographs I took of the fire in my building, this one was also taken after the fire. I wanted to give this one it’s own post only because I think it stands out from the others, and so deserves a special notice.
Personally, this photograph is a bit eerie for me, because when I was walking around the building after the fire had been put out, everything was destroyed, in ruins, covered in ash and the one common resonance in all those areas was that the fire had been there. This was the one place in contrast to the others, where there was a sign of other people having been here. This wall was white before the fire struck, and was right next to the room where the fire started. Covered in ash now, a few hands had run over it while racing to put the fire out, revealing traces of what it was like before the fire. Rushed hand marks stand as a memory of the chaos at the time, and each trace of human existence on this surviving wall, is a like a footprint of the people who were here, brave enough to take the fire on and defeat it.