At least 43 people have died in a devastating fire in a multi-storey building housing a factory in a congested market area of India’s capital New Delhi, officials said.
The blaze broke out around 4am local time on Sunday (10:30 GMT on Saturday) in the city’s old quarter, whose narrow lanes are lined with many small manufacturing and storage units.
Monika Bhardwaj, deputy police commissioner of New Delhi’s north district, told AFP news agency that the death toll from the incident had jumped to “43, with 16 others still admitted at the local hospitals”.
“Fire department has completed the rescue work. There are no more bodies at the site. We don’t yet know the cause of fire but know that it was aggravated because of plastic packing pouches, bags and other such material there,” Bhardwaj added.
Fire officials said it was very difficult to access the dark, poorly lit premises in the commercial hub of Sadar Bazar in the older quarters of the capital.
Firefighters fought the blaze from 100 metres away because it broke out in one of the area’s many alleyways, tangled in electrical wire and too narrow for vehicles to access, authorities at the scene said.
Fire Services chief Atul Garg said the blaze was put out by 25 fire trucks and that the rescue operation was completed.
About 60 people, including casualties, were taken out of the building, according to police spokesman Arun Kumar Mittal.
Workers sleeping inside
While the cause of the fire is not clear, police and fire officials said they were investigating whether a manufacturing unit was operating legally in the crowded area.
They were “labourers and factory workers sleeping inside this four- or five-storied building,” said Sunil Choudhary, New Delhi’s deputy chief fire officer.
Zakir Hussain, 32, waited desperately outside a government hospital. His 28-year-old brother, Shakir, had been missing since the morning.
Shakir made caps in the factory. The two brothers are migrant workers from the eastern state of Bihar and came to New Delhi eight years ago.
“I got a call at around 4am … that the building had caught fire and I am inside my room and there is no way to leave the room,” Zakir recalled Shakir saying.
“I reached the building at 4:30am. I called his phone several times, but nobody picked the phone,” he said, adding that he had no information about his brother.
Outside the same hospital, Mahboob Alam was in tears. He said he made hand bags with two of his nephews – Mohammed Imran and Ikram-ud-Din – and they lived on the second floor of the building.
“My nephews are missing. I visited a couple of hospitals and looked for them among the dead and injured, but so far no news,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Now, I have come here to LNJP [Lok Nayak Jai Prakash] hospital, but the police is not allowing me to go inside,” he said.
“The fire in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi on Rani Jhansi Road is extremely horrific. My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on Twitter.
“Wishing the injured a quick recovery. Authorities are providing all possible assistance at the site of the tragedy,” he added.
Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, described the incident as “very very tragic news.”
“Rescue operations going on. Firemen doing their best. Injured are being taken to hospitals,” Kejriwal wrote on Twitter.
Fires are common in India, where building laws and safety norms are often flouted by builders and residents.
Many factories and small manufacturing units in big Indian cities are often located in old, cramped quarters of the cities, where the cost of land is relatively cheaper.
Such units often also serve as sleeping quarters for poor, mostly migrant labourers and workers, who manage to save money by sleeping overnight at their workplaces.
In 1997, a fire in a movie theatre in New Delhi had killed 59 people. In February this year, 17 people were killed by a fire in a six-story hotel, also in the Indian capital that started in an unauthorised rooftop kitchen.