Trapped in a room full of smoke. This is the haunting memory that many survivors recalled a day after the Mundka fire.
From using tables to smash windows to making makeshift ropes, many said it was a miracle they survived.
They recall that they first started to panic when the electricity in the building was cut off, and as people tried to descend through the only exit, they noticed smoke coming from below.
“The fire had spread to the upper floor, where more than 100 to 125 people had gathered for a motivational seminar. It was total chaos. We couldn’t see much because of the smoke. It was hard to breathe. The first instinct was to break the windows using the table and try to jump to safety. Some locals arranged for a rope and a JCB from a nearby crane market. Jo nikal paaya, woh bach gya,” said Manish Lakra, a technician working in the CCTV and WiFi assembly unit. Lakra was injured in both hands jumping from the first floor after grabbing a rope.
The hands of Preeti (19) were also burned while escaping the building: “Some tried to take the only exit of the stairs, but came back because the fire had spread. Some people started crying and made frantic phone calls to families, police and firefighters. Someone shouted: “I’m going to die”. We tried to break the windows but it was not easy. It took 10 minutes. Others, panicked, tried to remove an air conditioner to find an opening to escape.
Many, however, could not cope. “There’s a certain guilt…that I couldn’t help others. We don’t even know if they made it out alive. We are constantly checking media reports to find out who all died,” Priyanka said.
Some survivors said firefighters arrived late. “We had been calling the fire department and the police since 3:30 p.m. but help arrived at 5:00 p.m.,” said Saahil Prajapati, 23, the stock manager, who was among the first to be rescued. “I lost count of the number of people we rescued with the help of locals. Many died in front of me. I always try to deal with the tragedy.
Atul Garg, the Delhi fire service chief, denied the allegations, saying the fire services received a call at 4:40 p.m. and the first fire tender was reached at 4:50 p.m. “There was no delay in the firefighting operation. We arrived as soon as we could. Seeing the situation, we sent out more fire tenders but they arrived late due to traffic.
Outside the building on Saturday, many survivors stood anxiously on a road divider for hours as the NDRF and firefighters continued search operations. Colleagues inquired about their friends from officials and locals.
“Mona tu nikal gayi (Mona, you’re out),” Ritika said, as soon as she saw her colleague. Both kissed before cracking up. “Drishti nahi nikal paayi aur Sonal ka kuch nahi pata (Drishti couldn’t escape and Sonal disappeared),” Mona said. Drishti was among the dead who were identified on Saturday.
Three women – Ayesha (24), Kajal (19) and Banwati (18) – from Bhagya Vihar, all of whom suffered injuries to their arms and legs, waded into the chaos, repeatedly asking residents to help them identify their colleagues and relatives.
Ayesha said: “My niece Mahi is missing. Her parents go around hospitals and morgues to find her. I came here hoping.
Kajal said, “My three classmates, who worked with me, are nowhere to be found. I saw they were stuck as I descended a rope to escape.
Poonam said she took two days off because she was not feeling well. “I was lucky to survive, but one of my relatives, Yashoda, disappeared. She was in seminary. My family saw the news and assumed I was stuck in the building as well,” she said.
Survivors said locals had also provided a crane, a makeshift rope, ladders and a mattress to help people down. “Without their help, the death toll could have been higher,” Prajapati said.