Mumbai (AFP) – At least 14 people were killed when a huge blaze tore through a popular restaurant in Mumbai early Friday, police said, in the latest disaster to raise concerns over fire safety in India.
Many of the victims were young women who were attending a birthday party on the rooftop when the fire broke out. Doctors said they died of asphyxiation, apparently as they tried to flee the burning building.
Local media reported that a false ceiling had collapsed in the four-storey building in the Indian financial capital, trapping people inside as they tried to escape.
“Fourteen people have succumbed to their injuries and remaining victims have been discharged from the KEM hospital. Most of the deaths were due to asphyxiation,” Avinash Supe, dean of the local KEM hospital told AFP.
Police said they were investigating the cause of the fire, and had filed a preliminary case against the restaurant’s owners.
Five city officials have been suspended for negligence in connection with the fire, the Press Trust of India news agency reported, without giving further details. No one was immediately available to confirm the report.
The fire was extinguished in the early hours but an AFP reporter at the scene said the rooftop where the party was taking place had been gutted, with blackened ice buckets and ashtrays strewn around.
Eleven of the victims were women, and survivors said people had become trapped in the restroom when the fire broke out.
“The ladies’ washroom was far away from the exit so many women died due to asphyxiation,” Torel Thakur told AFP at the Bhatia hospital in Mumbai, where her husband was being treated for burns.
“Nobody inside the washroom could have survived.”
Her husband Pratik Thakur described panicked scenes as the fire broke out.
“When the fire intensified, people were running and screaming for help and it was very chaotic,” he said.
“Most of the people didn’t know about fire exit and started jumping over each other.”
– ‘Utterly devastated’ –
Accidental fires are common across India because of poor safety standards and lax enforcement of regulations.
A fire swept through a sweet shop in Mumbai earlier this month, sparking a building collapse which killed 12 sleeping workers.
In September, a gas cylinder exploded in an unfinished building in Mumbai killing six people.
Such disasters are particularly common in Mumbai, where millions live in cramped, dilapidated properties because of high rental prices. Activists say builders and landlords often cut corners on safety to save costs.
Among the latest victims were brothers Dhairya and Vishwa Lalani, both in their 20s, who had gone to the restaurant for dinner.
Their cousin Viral Chheda said the two men were seated near the exit and managed to escape, but went back in after realising their aunt was missing. She was also among the victims.
“We are utterly devastated,” Chheda told AFP as he buried his cousins.
“They tried to save lives and gave up their own. The fire was on a massive scale,” he added, calling for those responsible the tragedy to be brought to justice.
Nearly 200 mourners attended the men’s funeral, and several expressed concern and anger about safety standards in the city.
The blaze was at the city’s Kamala Mills compound, which also houses hotels and media organisations.
The Times Network, which runs several national news channels, said its operations had been hit.
“The magnitude of the fire was huge, disrupting our operations temporarily. All our employees were evacuated safely,” it said in a statement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was “anguished by the fire in Mumbai”.
“My thoughts are with the bereaved families in this hour of grief. I pray that those injured recover quickly,” he said.