At least 17 people were killed when a major fire engulfed a five-storey hotel in the heart of the Indian capital before dawn on Tuesday, leaving some survivors in critical condition and others dazed and shaken.
The dead included at least two women from Myanmar and a child who could not escape the leaping flames and the thick smoke in Hotel Arpit Palace in the commercial-cum-residential district of Karol Bagh, officials said.
Two employees of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd, an IRS official, and three members of a family from Kerala's Kochi were also killed in the second worst fire incident in the capital since the 1997 Uphaar cinema tragedy in south Delhi that killed 59 people.
The death toll in the tragedy at Karol Bagh was the same as in the fire at a firecracker factory in Bawana in outer Delhi last year.
Police registered a case against the owner of the hotel Subhendu Goyal, who is absconding. He has been charged under sections including culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
The general manager and another employee of the hotel have been arrested by the Delhi Police and the case transferred to the Crime Branch.
The fire erupted shortly after 4 a.m. Three people jumped from the blazing structure as emergency doors were shut during the night, trapping them inside.
Some guests who had left the premises before the fire said the tragedy could have been averted had the hotel management taken their complaints about something burning seriously.
Witnesses also complained that the fire tenders reached the spot late. Fire service officials, however, blamed the hotel management for the delay in informing them.
"And even the hydraulic ladders of the fire tenders failed to open, resulting in delay in rescuing the people who were trapped inside the hotel," a witness said.
The witness alleged that a woman was screaming from the top of the hotel to save her child but to no avail.
Some 35 people were rescued from the hotel as around two dozen fire tenders joined the battle against the flames, Deputy Commissioner of Police Mandeep Randhawa told IANS.
He said while some of them were in critical condition, many others had minor to major burn injuries.
While some dozen people escaped the building themselves after the fire broke out, most of them were trapped till the fire tenders arrived. These people, as well as the including the bodies, were pulled out by fire officers.
By noon, the fire had been put out and firefighters had searched all the rooms and toilets to ensure no one was left trapped.
The injured were taken to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, Lady Hardinge Hospital and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
Officials said there were around 55 people, including staff, in the 40-room hotel. Some of the guests were foreigners.
Most victims died of suffocation, G.C. Mishra of Delhi Fire Service said, adding that the toll could go up as some of the injured were critical.
The hotel had a basement, a ground floor and four floors. Most of the damage was reported between the second and fourth floors and the basement and the ground floor were not majorly affected.
It was not clear in which part of the hotel the fire broke out. Mishra said prima facie the blaze appeared to have been caused by short circuit.
According to police officer Randhawa, while the hotel had got a no-objection certificate for fire safety in December 2017 (valid for three years) for the restaurant and guest house, the cafeteria on the ground floor and the bar were running illegally.
Union Tourism Minister K. J. Alphons said the emergency exits were "very narrow and not built according to specifications".
"And they were closed at night. According to information we have, those gates are closed at night and a guard sits outside. But we don't know if the guard was there or not," he told reporters.
Dazed survivors, who escaped only with the clothes they were in, complained that fire-fighting equipment was not readily available in the hotel and that wooden panels helped the flames to spread rapidly.
"There was no proper fire exit plan," one man added.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the deaths.
"Deeply saddened by the loss of lives due to a fire at Karol Bagh. I convey my condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. May the injured recover soon," he tweeted.
The Delhi government ordered a magisterial probe.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said an inquiry will be launched to find out whether the owner had a valid licence to run the hotel and the bar. He also announced Rs 5 lakh compensation for families of the deceased.
Those died have been identified as Jayshree P.C., P.C. Vidyasagar, Aravinth Sukumaran, Nand Kumar, EVS Chalpati Rao, Pranav Kumar Bhaskar, P Nalini Amma, Rubia Jusafbhai, Htumula Sein, Daw-Hla-May, Shankarnarayan Sheshdhari, Santosh Mahadev, Suresh Kumar, Tarachand and Mya-Mya-Htwe. The official said that two bodies have not been identified yet though the family of Lal Chand Thakur, a hotel employee killed in the blaze, said one of them was his.
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