Surat: The Surat Municipal Corporation on Saturday suspended two fire officers for granting a no-objection certificate to the building which was engulfed by a devastating fire here that claimed 22 young lives, hours after the manager of the coaching class where the deceased students were studying was arrested and two others booked for the incident.
Municipal Commissioner M Thenarasan told reporters that Surat’s Deputy Chief Fire Officer S.K. Acharya and Fire Officer Kirti Modh were suspended with immediate effect on charges of not taking action against the Takshashila Arcade where Friday’s blaze occurred for violation of fire safety norms.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani stated: “We have constituted an investigation committee, Urban Secretary (Principal Secretary, Urban Development), Mukesh Puri has been asked to file a report based on which we will take action. The manager and builder have been arrested.”
Surat Assistant Commissioner of Police P.L. Chaudhari late Saturday evening said the death toll in the incident had risen to 22. He informed reporters that “two teenage girls died today, taking the toll to 22, including 18 girls and four boys.”
Earlier, an official had said the number was 23. Around 12 injured persons were still undergoing treatment at various hospitals.
Most of the students who were killed in the fire were aged between 14 and 17. Some were expecting their Class 12 results on Saturday.
Shaken by the fire, all of Gujarat’s eight municipal corporations and scores of municipalities on Saturday ordered a shutdown of all coaching centres running in commercial complexes.
Officials said the coaching centres had been ordered to put all fire safety norms in place, without which they would not be allowed to function.
The authorities started investigating fire safety norms in coaching classes, private hospitals and other buildings in various towns and cities of the state. Many of these buildings, including a library in capital Gandhinagar, were sealed, along with 40 coaching centres in Bharuch and many others at several places.
The police have arrested Bhargav Butani, who ran the art and drawing classes in Takshashila Arcade building in Surat’s Sarthana area, Police Commissioner Satish Sharma said.
Two others, including the builder of the commercial complex, Harsukh Vekaria, were also booked. A search was on for the builder.
Sharma told reporters: “We have ordered an investigation into the fire incident by the ACP, Crime Branch. A case under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code for culpable homicide has been lodged against the accused.”
Official sources revealed there were no proper fire safety norms being followed in the building. Two shops and around a dozen two-wheelers parked below were also gutted in another fire sparked off by the blaze because of the electric wires and poles nearby.
The fire broke out late afternoon around 4 p.m. in the Smart Design Studio, which ran illegally on the covered terrace of the Takshashila building that effectively became a fourth storey.
Officials said the fire started at the ground floor and reached the top floor. Some students of another class, rushed to the terrace to escape the fire and found themselves stuck there. The only way to the top floor was a three-foot wooden staircase, which had been reduced to ashes.
According to witnesses, there must have been around 50 students in the Takshashila Arcade building when it caught fire. Graphic videos on social media showed more than 10 panic-stricken students from the third and fourth storey jumping off to escape the blaze and the billowing smoke.
Tragically, hundreds of people watched and many shot videos and pictures while student after student fell off the building like ninepins. Half of the dozen students who jumped in panic were killed.
Eyewitnesses alleged the fire brigade staff, which got delayed by half an hour, did not have any nets to hold the students jumping from the building and even their hydraulic staircase could not go beyond a little over the second floor of the building.
The cause of the deadly inferno is not yet clear, though officials believe it was sparked off by a short circuit in a sweet shop in the building.