Inferno throws up burning questions
By 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.

While many 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.

The tug-of-war 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.

Caught between 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.

The ill-equipped 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.

Another allegation 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.

The alleged 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.

Contray to Mr. Sally's claims, shop owners say they are authorised to conduct their businesses and store firecrackers.

"We have been given a permit from the District Secretariat and our businesses are not illegal," said V.Chandrakumaran whose shop was damaged in the fire .

Firecracker stalls flood the city's pavements during festive seasons, and authorities seem to care little. If they were illegal, how did the Municipality allow them?

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.

However, the 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
Colombo's 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.

During the 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 the Board.

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.

Aren't the fire departments in the city ill-equipped and short staffed to handle major fires?

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
Amidst 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 their houses.

Anver Mufeeda (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 been stolen".

In another 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 said.

A. Ravindran, 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".

According to 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.

Deputy 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.

Excerpts of an interview with the Deputy Mayor.

The Fire authorities state that they are ill-equipped to meet emergencies. Your comment.
It 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.

What 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.

What is the solution?
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.

The CMC 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.

What about 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?
I 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.

Nothing 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.

This firecracker 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?
That 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.

Dilapidated buildings where precautions go to blazes
The lack 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.

Veerasingham 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.

Suriyakumaran's 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.

Adjoining Saraswa-thie 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.

Ravindran had 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.

"He had 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."

Twenty four-year-old 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.

Also receiving 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.

Nineteen of 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 children.

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