up burning questions
Chris Kamalendran and Faraza Farook
Tuesday night's Christmas inferno in Pettah-one of the
most devastating fires in recent years has left burning questions
which if not resolved early could leave many more people buried
in the wreckage of a similar calamity.
people are blaming the Colombo Municipal Council for its fire brigade
being ill equipped and inefficient in dealing with the blaze the
CMC is blaming the AirForce,the Water Board and others in a crisis
of shocking chaos.
The night long
blaze had a dilapidated three-storey building at Gas Works Street
in Pettah left 20 people dead and scores injured after an explosion
in a fire cracker shop engulfed the whole building.
between the Air Force and the CMC, over the ownership of fire department
equipment, has left Colombo city and its suburbs in jeopardy. While
the CMC complains of a lack of funds to purchase new equipment and
says the Fire Department is ill equipped to face a crisis. the Air
Force, which managed the Fire Brigade till last year says it needs
to retain most of the equipment for important work.
Colombo's Deputy Mayor Azath Sally says, "I asked the Air Force
Commander to give us at least one water carriage, if they were unwilling
to return all the equipment, but he refused." He said the Air
Force Commander, during a discussion on this matter early this month
had claimed that with new airfields coming up, the Air Force would
have to give cover to all the private aviation services.
a public outcry of poor performance and the reality of being poorly
equipped, the Deputy Mayor called on the Prime Minister to intervene
to reach a settlement. "Despite all our efforts on Tuesday
to get the Army Navy and Air Force to work together, people are
still blaming us. They complain that the water came late, this came
late and that came late," Mr. Sally said.
The Fire Brigade
struggled for nearly six hours before it finally put out the fire
on Wednesday morning.
fire department was not the only issue. The switch in ownership
of water distribution in the city posed another challenge to the
fire fighters. The hydrants around the site of the blaze were of
no use, forcing the Fire Brigade to go all the way to the Beira
Lake to get water. The Water Board is also caught in the controversy
for failing to maintain the hydrants in the city after it took over
ownership from the Municipal Council.
against the fire department was its late arrival at the scene. While
the fire broke out around 8.20 p.m., the fire brigade had arrived
only around 8.50 p.m. This was attributed to the chaos that prevailed
on the roads, with people gathering at the site making it difficult
for the fire brigade to reach its destination.
illegal businesses that were carried on for several years are also
raising questions. According to Mr. Sally, the CMC does not give
licenses for firecracker sales. But the fireworks shop where the
blaze started had been in business for several years.
Mr. Sally's claims, shop owners say they are authorised to conduct
their businesses and store firecrackers.
been given a permit from the District Secretariat and our businesses
are not illegal," said V.Chandrakumaran whose shop was damaged
in the fire .
stalls flood the city's pavements during festive seasons, and authorities
seem to care little. If they were illegal, how did the Municipality
Mr. Sally said
the Municiplaity needed to take responsibility for allowing unauthorised
businesses to continue but he also protested that there were too
many issues to be tackled.
law seem to be in conflict here. On the one side, the Municipality
claims to be issuing licences and on the other, the District Secretariat
issues the permit.
The blame is
being passed, the buck is being passed and it might go on till everything
goes to blazes.
Fire Chief returns
Fire Chief J. Kannangara says if there were shortcomings in fighting
last Tuesday's fire they were due to a lack of equipment and staff.
The Sunday Times interviewed Mr. Kannangara on some of the matters
raised. His respose:
There is wide
spread criticism that Colombo's Fire Brigade is ill-equipped or
inefficient in fighting a major fire.What is your respose?
We are short
of staff and do not have sufficient equipment. After the Central
Bank explosion the Fire Brigade was brought under the control of
the AirForce and was given back to the CMC last year.During that
period all the equipment purchased had been removed by the Air Force.
fire at Pettah last Tuesday the fire brigade bowsers had to depend
on the Beira lake for its water as the Hydrants in the city were
not working . What was the reason for this ?
That is correct.
Earlier the hydrants were maintained by the CMC , but now they come
under the Water Board . Therefore the hydrants are maintained by
There were allegations
that the Fire brigade was late to get to the scene ?
That is not
the fault of the fire fighters. Soon after we received the call
we dispatched the fire engines, but the crowds who had gathered
around the location of the fire hampered our movements. Some of
the businessman were worrying us to douse the fire in their shops,
but that was not possible.
The fire department
is supposed to carryout regular inspections on buildings in the
city. Does this take place ?
We do about
1000 inspections a year and we have come across several buildings
that do not maintain proper standards. Some of them do not have
ventilation while others do not have a proper access. We have informed
the relevant authorities, but no action has been taken.
We have also
noticed that the license obtained for some of the premises is misused.
For instance at this location the license had been obtained for
a grocery, but they had stored fire crackers.
fire departments in the city ill-equipped and short staffed to handle
There are three
sub stations in addition to the main station in the city. We have
a staff of 450, but we need 225 more. After several years the treasury
has given permission to recruit more people.
Given the constraints
how did the fire brigade manage to fight the last Tuesday's fire
We were assisted by the Ports Authority and the Air Force. It took
more than six hours to control the fire. One of the problems we
faced was that the people did not have a proper exit. The flooring
was wooden and as a result the fire spread very fast.
In the hellfires
those devils also came out
the fiery pandemonium around Gas Works Street, the vultures also
turned up as usual for widespread looting of jewellery, furniture,
electrical goods and other valuables.
Some of the
casualties still recovering at the Colombo National Hospital said
they found all their jewellery had been removed while they were
still to find out what items had been robbed from the wreckage of
(45) lost consciousness while trying to escape through the only
exit point in the building. When she recovered she found her jewellery
had been removed. "I don't know who got me out of the building.
But one of the two bangles I was wearing, and both my chains, have
horror, where the entire family of seven died inside the building,
family members say that household goods including a TV, VCD, refrigerator
and a sewing machine had been removed. Among the dead were three
females - a mother and two daughters - whose earrings had been removed.
"Their ears had not been torn. So the robber appears to have
taken his time to remove one earring at a time," a family member
a resident and shop owner in the first floor of the building said,
"Looters had made a crater on the wall entering from the back
of the building and removing the goods".
eyewitnesses, the entire building was in darkness soon after the
explosion and smoke filled the whole area preventing many victims
from getting out. But despite the darkness, the smoke and the chaos
the looters apparently found a way of carrying on their deadly business.
Mayor blasts Air Force
Colombo's Deputy Mayor Azath Sally admits that the Fire Department
is ill equipped but he blames it on the AirForce.
an interview with the Deputy Mayor.
authorities state that they are ill-equipped to meet emergencies.
is true. The Air Force retained most of the equipment when they
returned the fire Department to the CMC after the emergency lapsed.
Several requests in this regard had fallen on deaf ears. When I
met the Air Force Commander along with the Fire Chief on December
5, he refused to return the vehicles or equipment.
is the Air Force retaining
All.If they return the equipment we will have an efficient
service. When the airport was attacked it was the CMC fire brigade
that went first to Katunayake.
The CMC has no money to buy new equipment. We are calling the
Prime Minister to intervene and get the equipment back to the CMC.
Till that happens
what will you do. If things were so difficult in a three storey
building, what would happen if a high-rise building went up in flames.
We would be
helpless. That is why we want the Prime Minister to intervene immediately.
had to get water from the Beira Lake, because the Hydrants in the
area have not been maintained. Whose is responsible for this?
The Water Board.
the unauthorised businesses in the ill fated building?
There was a lodge that was being run without a license. The
cracker shop is actually a grocery. The CMC doesn't give any licences
for the sale of crackers. Nobody has a license for fire cracker
sales in the city. Most of them start grocery stores and sell crackers.
The people living in that building should have informed the CMC
about illegal activities.
It's a common
sight to see fire cracker stalls in the streets during the festive
season. If the CMC doesn't give licenses for cracker sales, how
have these people operated over the years?
Yes, we take
the blame for it. The authorities including myself to look little
or no action. This is a lesson for all of us.
But my question
is why do you let these people sell firecrackers if it is illegal?
would love to change this city overnight. For this, I'll need the
co-operation of everybody. There are people working against me.
I am doing the best I can.
has been done regards these firecracker stalls, although they are
operating openly without a license?
It's not just crackers. How many lodges, massage parlours,
brothels, and unauthorised constructions are there ? How many pavements
, gullies and drains that are being blocked? These are issues that
I like to look into.
shop has been there for years. And the oil store adjoining it posed
a dangerous situation. Why did the Municipal Council turn a blind
eye ? Were you waiting for somebody to petition you?
is what I meant. The CMC has so many issues to deal with. Immediate
action has to be taken, but what I can do is limited.
buildings where precautions go to blazes
of a fire escape and the only exit point being a single spiral staircase
for the 40 families in the upper floor of the 80-year-old building
on gas Works Street, put several lives in jeopardy when the fire
broke out on Tuesday.
Suriyaku-maran, the owner of Saraswathie Stores that was in flames
on Tuesday, was inside the shop attending to final accounts for
the day with a few of his employees. Suriyakumaran died on the spot
when the showcase collapsed on him due to the impact of the explosion.
"He was found clutching a bundle of money in his hand,"
an eyewitness, A. Ravindran said. The other employees had escaped
soon after the explosion.
brother, V. Chandrakumaran had left the shop a few minutes before
the blaze. "When I rushed back to the site, I was told that
everybody in the shop had been taken to hospital. But my brother
was still in there, dying in the flames and I didn't know,"
Chandra-kumaran lamented. His sister Chandra-devi, brother-in-law
Ratnam Pararasasingham, their children Dhayalini, Suja-tha and Gajan
who were in the housing unit on the second floor of the same building
were dead when the fire fighters reached them that night. With them
was Aramathurai Sivamani, Ratnam's niece, who had come from Jaffna
to stay with them. Just 26-years-old, Aramathurai had been engaged
and was hoping to go abroad soon. Her hopes were buried with her
this week. Her body was being taken to her family in Jaffna on Friday.
Stores, was the fireworks shop from where the fire is believed to
have broken out. Three male members of the same family died - the
owner, his son who had returned from abroad and his brother-in-law
- all who, like Suriyakumaran had locked themselves inside the shop
to attend to the day's accounts when the fire broke out.
While the stories
of the victims were heart rending the miraculous survival of some
of the people was hard to believe.
rushed out from his music centre on the first floor of the building
the moment he heard an explosion. "That noise wasn't one of
fireworks, but something much more powerful," he said Having
witnessed the entire incident he said, one boy, an employee of one
of the three shops that were ablaze, had gone for a bath around
7.30 p.m. He came out safely some three hours after the explosion
with no serious injuries.
remained inside the bath tub to avoid inhaling any gas. And since
the bathroom was situated at the back of the building, the effect
on it was minimal."
V. Arunachalam is counting his blessings for being among survivors.
Coming from Bandarawela, he had joined a grocery store in 4th Cross
Street and shared a room with seven others.
treatment at the National Hospital was Madeena Saleem (48) along
with five of daughters, are among those who are breathing a sigh
of relief that they escaped with slight injuries.
those who were rushed to the National Hospital had no external burn
injuries but had become unconscious due to excessive inhalation
of something like Carbon Monoxide according to Accident service
Director, Dr. Anil Jasin-ghe said. Among the casualties were four