A preliminary probe into the causes of devastating fire in Surat at a coaching class which claimed lives of 22 students last week has highlighted various lapses on part of officials of the local municipal corporation as well as the builders. The probe also found that the structure where the coaching class was operated was prone to fire incidents. It had low ceilings, and tyres were used for sitting in place of chairs.
The builders had hidden the fact that they had added fourth floor to the three-storey Takshashila Complex while seeking regularisation of the structure in 2013 by paying "impact fee". According to a top bureaucrat, the officials concerned did not conduct a physical inspection of the building before approving the proposal of the builder.
The fire was triggered by a spark in the compressor of the air conditioner fixed between the first and second floors of the Takshashila Complex last Friday, and spread through a vertical display panel to the top floor with a dome structure where the coaching centre was located, as per a preliminary report submitted by Urban Development Department Principal Secretary Mukesh Puri to the state government Monday.
He said access to an RCC staircase connecting the fourth floor to the lower floor was blocked due to which the students could not escape out of the building. "Another escape route through an iron staircase could not be accessed due to fire," he added.
Puri said three officials have been suspended for various lapses. They are identified as SK Acharya and Krti Mod, both with fire department in Surat Municipal Corporation, and deputy engineer VK Parmar. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had directed Puri to conduct an inquiry and submit a report in three days.
"In 2013, four owners of the complex had applied for regularisation of structure by paying impact fee. Their application was approved in 2015. It is learnt now that they had applied for approval of a building with only three floors, and with no mention of a fourth floor. The responsible engineer did not conduct physical inspection of the building.
"Declaration by the builders was false, approval by the engineers was wrong. Officials who carried out survey for impact fee for the building and approved it without conducting physical verification are also responsible," Puri stated.
"The builders or the tenants using such a structure like the one on the fourth floor of the building are also responsible. Also, there is a big lapse on the part of the person who blocked access to the RCC staircase," he said.
Puri also said that certain fire department officials were also responsible as they did not carry out a survey of the building even after they were directed to do so in the wake of a similar incident in a tuition class in city's Vesu area in November last year. Two persons were killed in that incident.
The structure where the coaching class operated was prone to fire incidents, with low ceilings, tyres for sitting in place of chairs, and an iron staircase attached to it placed on a wooden structure which collapsed. "The fire went up to the third floor through a flex banner. A dome structure on the fourth floor caught fire. The fourth floor was attached to the third floor by an iron staircase with a wooden structure. The fire reached the fourth floor where the coaching class was operating," he said.
Puri said the smoke caused due to the blaze could not escape as the structure had no ventilator. As per the report, as many as 918 sensitive establishments were surveyed and 450 have been asked to comply while 39 properties are sealed. "Fire officials were supposed to carry out the survey. How the building remained to be surveyed is a big lapse," he said.
Puri also said there were three teachers in the coaching centre at the time of the incident. While one of them died, another received serious head injuries while jumping off the building. The third also sustained injury while escaping, but has been arrested.
Puri said the findings are a result of a three-day investigation and a detailed investigation will continue further in the case. He said Surat has two vehicles with hydraulic ladders but one of these arrived 45 minutes after the fire erupted and was of not much use.
Police have so far arrested three persons, namely Harshul Vekaria, Jignesh Paghdal, and Bhargav Butani. While Vekaria is the builder, Paghdal used to handle the overall management of the complex and Butani is the owner of the coaching class.