Wednesday, February 24, 2010
When someone jumps out of a high-rise window to escape a fire, it doesn’t happen like in the movies. The fall doesn’t proceed in slow motion. There’s no drama, no close-up of the jumper’s face as they go through their emotions. One moment they are hurtling through the air, the next they are a shabby lump on the ground. You might as well have thrown out a sack of clothes. There’s no time for any sort of emotional response in the onlooker.
Douglas Adams delivered the most sage bits of advice over thirty years ago:
- Don’t Panic
- Knowing where one’s towel is
When the fire alarm went off at about 4 PM yesterday, nobody budged. We knew the drill. Someone would come knocking on the door, demanding that we keep with the program and get out. We’d reluctantly pack up stuff and lock the door on the way out, because fire drills are such a perfect opportunity for theft. Nobody wanted to be bothered with this. That is, until we saw smoke out of the window.
“Run!” demanded Sashi. “Don’t pack, just run.” Then we saw smoke coming in the front door. Thick, black, stinging smoke. And then it was coming in through the restrooms and the pantry, and leaking in from the ceiling. We were trapped. The fire was right outside and all we could do was shut the doors and stay in. Outside, black clouds billowed from floors above. Spectators had started to gather.
There was neither heat nor visible flame. We didn’t know where the fire was, but it sure seemed to be above us. Smoke continued to seep in. Anjan ran to the restroom and wetted his handkerchief. Getting the idea, I did too with my cycling hand-towel, then passed it on and ran rounds for the others, wetting their kerchiefs. The restroom got harder to enter with each round. I had to breathe deep, open the door, open tap, wet the kerchief, close tap, step out, close the door, and breathe out. One early breath and I’d be choking. Breathing outside air through the wet cloth made it bearable.
Being thus forced to the windows, we turned outwards to look down on the growing crowd. Someone jumped from the floor above. Someone else too. Bizarrely, this was like watching a high voltage action movie in immersive 3D, except we may not be going home at the end of it.
Or you could look at it as a giant fumigation operation. Smoke the building out and watch the humans flee through any exit available, however high off the ground it is.
What does one do at a time like this? Sashi called her husband. Anjan called his wife, produced a string of beads from somewhere, and proceed to sit in a corner and chant. Sanjay called his mother, carefully explained that we were stuck in a burning building, and asked if she could perform a puja for us, and no, this was not a joke call. Sangeetha, I don’t know what she did. As an asthmatic, she was at high risk of asphyxiation. Seetharaman had the worst time of all. As a single father, he had to explain to his very young daughter that this may be a goodbye.
I didn’t call anyone. I didn’t want to set off panic. I stayed by the window, watching the crowd below, the fire brigades trying to make their way through, the men assembling mattresses and a cloth net for additional jumpers. We were going to be rescued and would be going home shortly. There was no need to panic.
Except, something was missing. Where was the documentation? So I took out my phone and posted:
Carlton Towers is burning and six of us are trapped inside. The fire’s above but there’s smoke everywhere. Saw people jump to their death. #
Then I took a picture of the crowd and posted that too:
I had no idea what I was setting off when I did this. Friends started to call almost immediately. The typical conversation went like this:
“Umm, are you all right?”
“I’m stuck inside a burning building.”
“You are… inside?”
“Yes, I’m inside, trapped, and it’s burning.”
“Umm, can I do anything to help?”
“No, it’s okay, I’ll be fine.”
By the time I hung up on one, another would be on call waiting, asking too if they could do anything to help. I could no longer post pictures or text. Seriously, people, if you’re not at the site of the emergency, don’t call. Your concern is appreciated, but by blocking all channels during those precious minutes, you’re being a hindrance. I posted a request:
Don’t call me folks, you can’t help. Will keep posting. #
It went mostly unheeded. People called anyway. Bala from DNA made the first press call. And now that it had hit the news, it was time to call family. I called Zainab first and asked her to tell mom, and to tell her to please not panic. Another person jumped and collapsed.
The firemen meanwhile had assembled a ladder and were attempting to scale up the other end of the building. The ladder went up to the fourth, while I could see many hands waving from the fifth, our floor. They were tossing a rope up for someone to catch. Elsewhere, men were bringing in a bamboo ladder. The men with the cloth net caught two jumpers, who were quickly whisked away to a waiting ambulance. (Apparently, one died.) Then they started to put in place a ladder directly below us. A ladder rescue, it was going to be. We waited. We continued hollering for attention, actually. The ladder was taking forever.
A Corner House treat to whoever gets a picture of me looking out of the window. Seriously, people, there’s no need to panic. Bad for you. #
And then there was a knock on the door. A fireman was outside. The smoke had cleared sufficiently for us to walk down the stairs. I quickly unplugged my desktop, grabbed my gear and stuffed as much as I could into my pockets. Seetha switched off the UPS. There had been no power since before the fire started, but we didn’t want to be the cause of another mishap, what with all the soot flying around. I went out last to watch for anyone stumbling ahead of me. We passed a small fire on the fourth floor and exited on the first, walked across the roof of the ground floor and down the B wing stairs. The firemen had blocked entry to the ground floor of our building. It was still sputtering.
As we walked across, I noticed another rescue operation in progress on the inner side of the building and stopped to watch. Someone had let down a fire hose from the roof and folks were swinging down one at a time. The staff of the restaurant downstairs were also there. They said it was suspected to be an electric fire. I posted:
Pavanaja called to say a local TV channel wanted to interview me. I accepted and went on the air explaining what I had seen in my broken Kannada. They wanted to know how many people were on the floor and what sort of companies they were. I had no idea, so I made guesses from what I remembered of the directory downstairs. Deepa Kurup from The Hindu was next, followed by a series of publications and channels that I can no longer remember. I was on the phone almost continuously for the next hour.
The crowd outside had swelled to cut off all transportation:
Sashi’s husband, a senior executive at Dell, arranged for a medical check-up at Dell’s campus up the road. The doctor gave me a clean chit. Blood pressure normal, breathing normal, just a lot of soot in my nose and hopefully not in my lungs.
We settled into a conference room to let our nerves settle. NDTV called next, and attending to this, I have to say, was a mistake. They tried to keep me on line for as long as they could while they interviewed the fire chief and others, asking me what I thought of the arrangements. I eventually got fed up, told them politely I had to talk to my family too, and hung up. (The clip is only 3 minutes, but the call went on for over twenty.) My phone said I had sixteen missed calls and several more messages waiting. One was from CNN-IBN, who ended up reading out my tweets. I was in no mood to return calls or do any more interviews, so I posted:
Cycling home. Won’t take calls. Please feel free to use my pictures as needed. #
The very helpful folks at Dell insisted that I take a cab home. They had booked a large car so I could fit the cycle in it. I insisted on cycling home. They didn’t think it was appropriate after facing this sort of trauma. I pointed out that I wasn’t the least bit traumatised and the doctor had confirmed. They relented, and I cycled home to parents who had been unable to watch television until then, fearing the worst.
Calls and messages continued to pour in late at night, and again this morning, thanks to the newspaper coverage.
All this media attention is being a lot more stressful than the fire itself. #
Requests for interviews continue as I type this, forcing me to switch off.
Turned down two phone calls requesting in-person interviews. Switching off phone for today. Will be on Twitter though. #
What is the point of an interview? It sells advertising for the interviewer, but will it do anything at all to improve fire safety? Will it make up for the disruption caused to the lives of the affected?