Delhi hotel blaze kills 17 as rules flouted

A fire suspected to have been triggered by an electrical short circuit engulfed a budget hotel in New Delhi’s dense Karol Bagh neighbourhood on Tuesday, killing at least 17 people, including a guest and the chef who tried to escape from the blaze by jumping off the five-storey building, the police said. Three people were injured, including a woman from Myanmar who too jumped to escape the fire.

The fire department, which received a call for help at 4.35am, said the fire had broken out an hour earlier and the delay in alerting the authorities led to the large number of deaths. Another delay took place when the firefighting unit that first responded to the alert carried a manual ladder, which was not long enough to reach the top floor of the hotel, an official said. A hydraulic skylift was later used to rescue the trapped guests and staff.

Sixteen guests and the chef died. Three of those killed in the fire at the hotel, Arpit Palace, were members of a family from Kerala that was in Delhi to attend a wedding. Delhi home minister Satyendar Jain, who visited the site, said most deaths were the result of suffocation.

Dozens of guests and hotel staffers were trapped inside the building once the blaze began, even as at least three of them – an Indian Revenue Service officer, the Myanmar tourist and the chef – jumped from the top floor and the roof of the building. Only the tourist survived, the police said.

Of the 17 fatalities, two died of severe burns and the rest of asphyxiation, said Atul Garg, chief fire officer, Delhi Fire Services.

Although the building had a no-objection certificate (NOC) from the Delhi Fire Services, safety norms were violated after the document was issued, Garg said. “When we inspected the hotel in December 2017, the roof was sealed to obtain the NOC. Later, they demolished the wall and began operating a restaurant from the rooftop,” he said.

While the fire department and a few staff members of the hotel said that a kitchen-cum-restaurant was operating from the rooftop, North Municipal Corporation of Delhi officials denied it. Photographs of the burnt roof, covered by a fibre sheet, showed tables, benches and chairs laid out.

MS Randhawa, deputy commissioner of police (central), said that there were also “lapses and willful negligence” by the hotel’s management. “The emergency exit located on the rear of the hotel had been blocked with goods,” the DCP said.

The hotel’s owner, Shardendu Goel, who is allegedly on the run, has been booked under Indian Penal Code sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide), the DCP added.

“We have arrested the hotel’s general manager Rajender, and manager Vikas,” Randhawa said, adding that the investigation of the case has been handed over to the crime branch of the Delhi Police.

Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who visited the hotel, said he had ordered a magisterial inquiry to ascertain the cause of the fire and possible lapses. He announced a compensation of ₹5 lakh for the next of kin of those killed.

The Delhi home minister said that prima facie, the hotel had been operating in violation of building by-laws. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation, however, said that the area was exempted from the development control norms that were applicable to the rest of the city.

The hotel is located about 300 metres from the Karol Bagh metro station and has 48 rooms, of which 45 are offered to guests while the rest are used as offices, said the DCP. There were around 55 guests occupying 40 rooms and about a dozen staff members when the fire broke out, the officer added.

The brother of the owner said that the hotel was 26 years old and had never been hit by an accident in the past. He suspected that the blaze was triggered by short-circuit after the air-conditioner was switched on in Room 109. “We have all the mandatory permissions,” he told a television news channel.

According to Garg, too, the fire started in Room 109, located on the first floor of the hotel, around 3am, possibly due to an electric short-circuit. This was corroborated by Dileep Trivedi, a guest from Ahmedabad, who said he heard “some unusual sounds” between 3 am and 3.15 am.

The first prominent alarms were raised around 4.30am, when there was a power failure and the hotel’s generator was switched on.

The guests included eight tourists from Myanmar, 13 members of an extended family from Kerala, an officer from the Indian Revenue Services, two doctors, two advocates from Gujarat, an engineer from Hyderabad and a few visiting non-resident Indians.

“Our probe so far has indicated that it had been over an hour since the fire broke out, but the hotel’s occupants or staffers weren’t aware of it for long. When the hotel staff did know of the blaze, they tried using the firefighting equipment, but failed. It could either be because they were untrained or the equipment didn’t work,” said Garg.

The guests said they woke up to find dense smoke everywhere. Some of them managed to run downstairs, but most others were trapped in their rooms.

“The corridors were burning and emitting a lot of smoke. I had to shut myself in my room and try to open the window, but it just wouldn’t open. Finally, firefighters broke open the window panes and rescued me and my two relatives,” said PC Som Shekharan, who lost his mother and two siblings in the blaze.

Officers of the fire department said they will conduct checks on hotels and guest houses in the area to ensure violations such as the ones discovered on Tuesday at Arpit Palace are not prevalent elsewhere.

First Published: Feb 12, 2019 23:23 IST

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