At least 43 people were killed Sunday in a devastating fire that ripped through a bag factory in the cramped, congested old quarter of the Indian capital New Delhi, trapping scores of workers who were sleeping inside.
The blaze was the worst in Delhi since 59 movie-goers died in a cinema in 1997, with the city’s poor planning and enforcement of building and safety regulations often responsible for such deadly incidents.
Tearful relatives spoke of receiving desperate calls from factory workers from around 5:00am (23:30 GMT) pleading to be freed from the inferno in the dark, poorly lit premises in the commercial hub of Sadar Bazar.
The four-storey building was home to a series of manufacturing units producing items including schools bags and packing materials which only worsened the spread of the fire, officials said. Locals said the factory also made purses.
Authorities said an electrical short circuit appeared to cause the fire. Assistant New Delhi police commissioner Anil Kumar Mittal added that authorities were investigating whether the factory was operating legally
"Most of the casualties happened because of suffocation," witness Mohammed Khalil told AFP.
"After the fire, people didn’t have any way to get out and I believe many were asleep and because of the smoke, they got suffocated."
Outside a nearby hospital morgue, anxious relatives and friends gathered to identify the bodies.
Naushad Ahmad, was desperately looking for his friend who remained missing, unable to reach him on his mobile phone.
"I have been to the factory and this tragedy was waiting to happen," he told AFP.
"There was only one exit and entrance to the building, with all the electricity meters installed at the main door… People didn’t get a chance to escape."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that the fire was "extremely horrific", as state and national authorities said they would offer financial assistance to the victims’ families and to survivors.
Sajjamuddin Ahmad spent two hours searching for his father-in-law and brother-in-law among the bodies and injured before discovering they were dead, he told AFP.
Other relatives said they still did not know what had happened to their loved ones.
"I don’t know whether they are alive or dead," Noorjehan Bano, whose father and brother-in-law worked and lived in the factory, told AFP outside one of the hospitals.
Families of the victims told AFP they were mostly migrant workers who had come from Bihar, one of India’s most impoverished states. Some of them were paid just 1,000 rupees ($14) a month, they added.
Locals had called the police and emergency services as the blaze lit up the early morning sky, but firefighters struggled to reach the victims amid the narrow lanes.
Police and fire officials said at least 58 others were rescued, with local television networks airing footage of firemen carrying people out of the narrow lanes to nearby emergency vehicles.
The flames had been extinguished and they did not expect to find more bodies, officials added.
"Most who’ve died were sleeping when the fire broke out and died due to asphyxiation," Sadar Bazar’s assistant commissioner of police told AFP.
Many factories and small manufacturing units in big Indian cities are often located in old, cramped areas, where the cost of land is relatively cheaper.
Such units often also serve as sleeping quarters for poor, mostly migrant, workers, who manage to save money by staying overnight at their workplaces.