By The Washington Post · Niha Masih, Tania Dutta
The fire rescue operation took nearly four hours involving 30 fire engines and 150 personnel. The fire broke out on the second floor of the five-story building. Atul Garg, the chief of Delhi Fire Services said that cause of the fire - reported at 5:20 a.m. - was not immediately clear as the focus was on the rescue.
Images shared by local media from the accident site showed narrow corridors blackened with soot and charred remains of materials. Police officials said that most of the deceased were workers who lived in the factory, which manufactured school bags and purses. Majority of them were poor migrants from the state of Bihar.
"I saw bodies being taken in sacks," said Sarfaraz Nabi, who runs an electrical shop nearby describing the mayhem following the fire. Police and rescue teams also carried some on their shoulders. It was a painful sight."
Another resident, Babur Ali said locals rushed in to save people on hearing of the fire. "I went to the third floor to knock on doors but the rooms were locked from inside and people were fast asleep. We ran out of the building for our lives."
Garg said the factory was operating in a residential area in central Delhi near Rani Jhansi Road and there were no fire safety provisions. Congested lanes and dilapidated buildings with illegal manufacturing workshops dot the area where the accident took place.
Most of the deaths were due to smoke inhalation, according to Sunil Choudhary, deputy chief fire officer. "The iron gate of the building was locked from outside. The whole building became a gas chamber," he said.Choudhary said they were looking into the possibility of a short circuit having caused the fire.
There was chaos at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash hospital where majority of those rescued were shifted as people ran between the emergency ward and the mortuary to locate their relations. Abdul Kareem, 35, rang his relative Mohammad Shakir, a worker at the unit, multiple times after hearing of the fire before he was directed to the hospital. "We have been waiting to hear from the doctors or anyone who could at least tell us if he is alive or dead."
Mehboob Alam, 60, was also waiting at the mortuary for news of his two nephews who worked in the factory. "My elder brother called me in the morning crying. Imran (his nephew) had called his father scared that he would not survive." By early evening, Imran's body was found but Alam was still searching "hopelessly," for his other nephew.
Deadly fires are common in India, as fire safety regulations are poorly enforced and illegal construction rampant. Small factories, like the one gutted today, often operate illegally in cramped residential buildings without any safety measures in place. Earlier this year a fire at a hotel killed 17 people, prompting an outcry over fire safety measures in buildings in the capital.
Calling it a "tragic incident," Imran Hussain, a minister in the Delhi state government, said an investigation will be conducted and action taken against those responsible. Delhi's chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, visited the spot and announced compensation to the families of the victims.
Delhi witnessed its worst fire tragedy over two decades ago when a fire blazed through a movie theater during a screening, killing 59 people and injuring more than 100 others.