“Sir … sir … the Hall is burning!” Someone burst into the Board Room, shouted these words at us and rushed away. We were at our monthly Board meeting; I was Secretary to the Board and Chief Executive Officer. Talk stopped abruptly; elderly Board Members looked at one another, nonplussed. But this meant ‘work’ to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

BMICH: The light at the end of that unforgettable day


“Sir … sir … the Hall is burning!” Someone burst into the Board Room, shouted these words at us and rushed away. We were at our monthly Board meeting; I was Secretary to the Board and Chief Executive Officer. Talk stopped abruptly; elderly Board Members looked at one another, nonplussed. But this meant ‘work’ to me. Leaving them still staring, I was out of the chair and running towards the fire …

(It was a year and a half previously that I had been placed in charge of the country’s only International Conference Hall: a national flagship institution. I had found that behind its gleaming façade, the reality was grim. Inefficiency was rife. Losses had mounted over the years.

But the overarching problem was a major revolutionary uprising in the country: Security became my first priority. Introducing radical new systems, we became the only public institution in the country that did not close down for a single day.

All the workers were nominees of past or present Board Members. Because of this – or perhaps in spite of it? – they were fanatically loyal to the Hall and, when the crunch came, it was their loyalty that ultimately saved the day.

And now, the Hall was ‘burning’!)

I found the Hall swarming with workers. The fire-detection sirens had sounded and the workers had responded by reeling out the hoses and starting to direct water towards the single door of the VIP lounge on the second floor, out of which thick, black smoke was pouring. But power had been turned off to prevent short-circuits, and nothing could be seen through the pall of smoke that was permeating every space. Fortunately, no one had been foolhardy enough to venture inside the lounge. But no one had taken charge of the situation. Confusion reigned. Workers and policemen were milling around like ants in a disturbed nest. Some people were in shock, in tears, while others were racing around checking various spaces, then slipping and falling on the wet, polished floor. Rushing past me, one person cried:

“Aiyo, Sir, api ivarai, indala vedak nae!”

We are finished; our lives are gone, what’s there left to live for?

Since there was nothing I could do to restore order, I decided that I could do more by observing. Observation Number One: there was no fire to be seen, and no flames. I went into the main auditorium, the heart of the Hall. Though this was an alternative route to the VIP area and could have given access to the back of the fire, it had fortunately been overlooked by the emotionally-charged crowd. The auditorium was dark, it was veiled in smoke, but – there was no fire! I walked on to the stage and examined the curtains. Nothing. Therefore, I told myself, the source of the smoke has to be deep down in the basement. With everyone busy doing his own thing, I decided to do mine – I would search out the fire in the basement.
As if on cue, the Colombo Fire Brigade arrived, sirens wailing. The Security Officer met and briefed them. The Fire Officer hurried away to rally his men. Hoses were coupled, water gushed into the VIP area, and he cleared the premises of workers, who left unwillingly. Leaving the Security Officer in charge, I continued my descent to the bowels of the basement. Down there, too, there was neither fire nor heavy smoke; only a haze that hung over everything, gauzy in the dim Emergency lights. Where was the fire, then?

I borrowed a torch and, together with the workers, searched the network of corridors, testing heavy metal doors for excessive heat that could indicate a fire within. Again, nothing. In our final patrol of the outermost perimeter, we spotted what looked like dying embers on the false ceiling (of perforated hardboard) that concealed the Hall’s wiring and piping. We could still see no flames, so we cautiously went right under the ‘embers’, and at last found the genesis of the ‘fire’ – an untidy bundle of cotton waste and rubbish which had caught fire and set off a chain reaction. Above the bundle was a large shaft which housed the central air-conditioning conduits. That shaft had now become a chimney, the updraft sucking up the smoke. But – so much smoke from this little bundle of smouldering rags? It had nearly burned itself out and was beginning to burn into the false ceiling, producing the ‘embers’ we had seen.

Leaving the workers in the basement, I went in search of the Fire Officer and brought him down. The false ceiling was pulled down, the smouldering fire was put out, and hoses were brought into play. Firemen went up the shaft, having first wet it thoroughly, and discovered the source of the smoke.

Nearly twenty years earlier, when the Hall was being constructed, asbestos insulation had been installed, sandwiched between the square metal duct and the hardboard sheets securely clamped around. It was the hardboard that was now smouldering, reacting with the asbestos, and spewing out clouds of smoke. But hardboard can only burn: it doesn’t burst into flame. That was why we had smoke – without fire!

Thoroughly doused, the smoke ceased, and every window was kept open for the noxious fumes to disperse. The Hall lost nothing to fire – but much to water!

The drama was over. But now a political farce took centre stage. We had made headlines: an international Conference of States was to be hosted in four months’ time and whispers of ‘sabotage’ went from mouth to mouth. There was talk of a Commission of Inquiry, pending which the Hall was declared out of bounds to us all! A Police Investigation also began.

I then told the Board that I could not ready the Hall for the Conference unless I was given access to the Hall. The ‘stay’ order was withdrawn.
Now began the real work. I shut myself in my office and tried to put my thoughts together. With a suspicion of sabotage lingering in many minds – mine included – I took stock. I needed an ‘action plan’. I knew that the workers would do all they could. I listed my priorities: cleaning the mess (no problem: the staff in charge of maintenance and housekeeping would do that); structural repairs and colour-washing (a real problem this, since the Maintenance Manager, being arthritic and in constant pain, would be able to play only a supporting rôle); re-wiring and restoring power safely (another big problem: my indispensable Electric Engineer, elderly, knowledgeable and reliable, was in hospital with terminal cancer, where his staff visited his bedside daily and discussed problems). I had few options. Who was there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me, who was the person on whom I could rely?

My best bet turned out to be the highly-qualified and respected Architect-Engineer who acted as our Consultant. It was to him that I now turned. Happily he was on the premises that day, and he came as soon as I called him. Understanding the magnitude of the task before us, he had already done his homework and made no bones about how much work had to be done and how little time we had in which to do it.

“But,” he told me, “there is a way: Let’s work on this together, you and I.”

I agreed. He promised a work-plan by the next day.

It was now my responsibility to ask the Board to let us ignore ‘Tender Board Procedure’ and hand-pick the contractors we would employ. I had envisaged many difficulties in this part of our task, but (thankfully) I had guessed wrong: the Board readily granted my request and gave us its full support. We chose our Contractor: he sat with the Consultant and me, working out details. Overnight, he diverted all his resources from his other sites. Work began.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I turned to the next problem: the electrical system. I talked with the Electrical staff. The entire Hall had been thoroughly soaked by the fire-fighters, and water had infiltrated every electrical fitting and conduit, from the humble wall-switches to the majestic chandeliers, which had now to be lowered from the high ceiling.

“Everything that needs to be done can be handled by my staff and me,” said the Supervisor. “We’ll look after everything. We’ll take the fittings apart, dry and refit them. There won’t be any need for an outside contractor.”

Together with his most trusted lieutenants, the Consultant and I visited the ailing Electrical Engineer in hospital to talk things over. He was terminally ill, but he still smiled at us benignly, and spoke with confidence and authority.

“Leave it to the Supervisor and his team because they know the set-up so well,” he told us. “I’ll be guiding them, of course,” he added; “but you will provide them with everything they ask for, won’t you? Please?”

I promised that I would.

The next priority: damaged carpets, soaked furniture and tattered drapes. The Executive Housekeeper and her staff had carried out a thorough investigation. The floor-to-ceiling drapes would have to be replaced, but the sodden carpet and the furniture could be saved if quick action was taken.

“Leave it to me,” said the Executive Housekeeper. “I will find the best and fastest for the job. We’ll dry the carpets, clean and dye them and have all the furniture polished and upholstered.. If necessary, we could draw on our extra carpet stocks.”

It was only then that I discovered, to my delight, that reserve stocks of the original panelling and fittings also existed in store, left behind by the Chinese who had built and gifted the Hall to us. Now we could restore the Hall to what it had been before the fire.

Somehow, everything was eventually sorted out. It took us about two months, but when it was all done, the damaged area looked exactly as it had done before. As a test, I invited officials from the Chinese Embassy over, and asked them to tell us where the fire had been. They could not do so; and could not hold back their praise for Sri Lankan workmanship. Diplomatically, I did not tell them what had caused the fire!

When his work was completed exactly as he had promised, the Contractor took his men and equipment away. The lift was repaired by the agents, and was restored to full working order. The carpets had come back, and new drapes were hung. The Hall was no longer a public eyesore. Only one thing was lacking: Lights.

It was near the end of the nightmare that the Electrical Supervisor came to me. His ‘guru’, the Electrical Engineer, had passed away: the saintly old man’s gain was our loss. Although everything was ready, the Supervisor said, he could not restore power without the authority of an Engineer.
The ball was back in my court. This was no time for indecision. I spent a long time talking with him, understanding the neural system that kept the Hall functioning. Power from the national grid reached us from a sub-station manned by the Electricity Board. From there, it was routed to the main distribution control post, where supply of electricity to different areas was controlled. Power was now on line up to this point, but had not been restored to the Hall.

“We have done all that had to be done,” said the Supervisor, “but, sir, I am not an Engineer and I can’t take the responsibility.”

Came the morrow and with it, the realization that the responsibility was mine. With a confidence born of the many problems I had recently faced, I walked across to the Control room. I was met by the Supervisor and his staff, and faced a bewildering array of dials, panels, cabinets, switches of all sizes and a host of other things I knew nothing about.

“What does this do?” I asked, indicating the item nearest to me.

I was told. And so we progressed down the line, until I had a general idea of the steps that had to be taken for power to be restored to the Hall.
“Okay,” I told the staff, “from now on, I’m in charge here. You will only do what I say. If anything goes wrong, none of you will be responsible. I will face the music alone. Thank you for all that you have done. Stand by.”

My plan was to restore power to one section at a time. As I restored power to one sector, the workers I had designated as ‘runners’ would go in there and visually check it. I knew that the dials before me would indicate a fault, but as a non-technical person I preferred to rely on human confirmation. With a thudding heart, I gave the first order, the Supervisor carried it out, his eyes on the many dials, and the ‘runners’ sped away. To my relief, there was no problem: the boys had done their work well. So, section by section, power was restored, till the Hall blazed with light. Then, and then only, did I ‘relinquish command’ and leave the Supervisor in charge. I went back shaking, my heart thumping, to pull myself together in the solitude of my office.

(Years later, an ex-Navy Electrical Engineer held his head in his hands when I told him:

“Good God, Somasiri!” he said. “You did everything wrong – everything. Why on earth did you do this in this ‘gung-ho’ way? Why?”

“Why? Because- if I had waited to do it the correct way, I would have run out of time,” I told him. “There was a job that had to be done, and the men had gone the extra mile to do it. Could I do anything less? Even at the cost of my life, this was the one thing I could have done. Remember what we learned in the Navy, about ‘the loneliness of command’? Well, I understood it that day.”)

We kept the lights burning that day and all that night, not only to test the system but also to show passers-by that life had returned to the Hall, which had been a ‘black hole’ in the nightscape of Colombo for months. I had only one system to test now, even though I knew it had been put right: the sound system. With maximum lights on in the auditorium and elsewhere, I walked up the stairs to the balcony, stopped just above the central aisle, and gave the signal to begin. Appropriately, the choice of the sound technicians had been classical orchestral music. Starting softly, and gradually increasing in volume, the sound reached its crescendo, with the big drums booming and the brasses blaring. I found myself gripping the rail, white-knuckled, my face wet with tears of relief. The dark days were at last behind us. That which was dead, we had brought back to life.

Groping for a seat, I sat down and let the softer strains of the strings soothe me, stilling my turbulent emotions, before I walked down to the Sound staff to say, “Well done!”.

It was as though, following a long and bitter winter, life had begun again. But my stay at the Hall was also coming to an end. A job abroad beckoned. The much-touted international conference had been put back by several months, and it took place after I had left.

A few days later, just before I left the country, I happened to be driving with my wife past the Hall at dusk, at the very moment that a major function which had been held there came to an end. I stopped the car on the opposite side of the road and we watched the scene before us. The Hall was still ablaze with lights, strains of music wafted towards us, unbroken streams of cars were entering and leaving along the twin approach roads, their headlights on, lit from above by the lamps lining the roads. It was Light that had worked the magic. This was what this Hall was meant to be.

It moved me deeply, this commonplace scene, made uncommon only by my experience. Whatever happened in the years to come, I would know that once we had held a charred shell in our hands and breathed it into new life.

And, for just a fleeting moment, I knew how God must have felt, that First Sunday.

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