“She never steps out, but I told her to come and have some fun.” That is how Bharti Doshi persuaded her sister Pramila Kinya to join her and the other members of the family at dinner on Thursday night at a restaurant called 1Above on the rooftop of a building in the Kamala Mills complex in the central Mumbai neighbourhood of Lower Parel. Hours later, a bruised Doshi was standing in the smoke-filled compound, praying for the safety of her sister and two nephews. A fire had broken out during their meal, trapping three members of Doshi’s family.
The blaze spread within seconds, Doshi said, and the partitions between the tables started collapsing, causing chaos. “I could only see those large flames and hear people screaming,” recalled Doshi, who is on a visit to the city from the US, where she lives. “My husband and I ran towards the staircase.”
In their dash for safety, Doshi and her husband slipped and were trampled by others trying to escape. “Someone gave a hand to my husband who helped me up,” Bharti Doshi said.
Doshi’s nephews Dhariya Lalani, 28, and Vishwa Lalani, 23, were also visiting from the US. Dhariya Lalani had recently quit his engineering job in the US and was considering moving back to India.
On Friday morning, Pramila Kinya and the Lalani brothers were brought to KEM Hospital dead. At least 11 other people were also killed in the blaze, and more than a dozen injured.
Viral Chedda, a cousin of the Lalanis, said the firefighters told the family the brothers were trying to rescue their aunt and others. “They died helping others,” Chedda said.
Added Doshi: “They were the only children in the whole family. Three mothers lost their children today.”
The Mumbai Fire Brigade has confirmed that 1Above did not have a fire exit. Some patrons took the staircase while many even used the elevator to escape, even though this was dangerous.
“Owing to the rush on the staircase, some people tried to lock themselves in the toilets,” said Mayur Mehta, whose sister Khushbu was among the dead. Khushbu
and her husband Jayesh Bansali, along with some relatives and friends, were at 1Above to celebrate her 29th birthday. “She died on her birthday,” said Mehta, standing near his sister’s funeral pyre at Chandanwadi crematorium.
While Bansali managed to escape along with most of the couple’s guests, Khushbu and her friends Kinjal Shah and Neha Waghela ran into the men’s toilet and locked themselves in. But, feeling suffocated, Neha Waghela decided to brave the flames and run downstairs. “She tried to convince Kinjal and Khushbu but they were scared to step out,” said Mehta. “They seemed confident they would be rescued.”
The Bansalis, who had been married for three years, had recently told friends that they hoped to start a family soon.
Also locked up in the A1 washroom were Parul Lakdawala and her sisters, Shefali Doshi and Manisha Shah. They had been dining at 1Above with their families. “Their children had come from the US and they all decided to spend some time together,” said a relative who declined to give his name.
The men and children of the group escaped quickly but the sisters headed towards the bathroom, where they succumbed together.
KV Hivrale, the deputy fire officer, said that the bodies of all 14 people who died in the fire had been found in the toilets. “It looks like the fire advanced quickly and these individuals did not get the chance to reach the staircase,” he said.
Hivrale is unsure if the eatery had all the requisite fire-fighting equipment. Although eyewitnesses have claimed the coal used in the hookah served in the restaurant sparked the fire, Hivrale said his team was still investigating this.
Trapped in toilets
At KEM Hospital, doctors said 13 of the 14 victims had been brought in dead. Only Shefali Doshi, 45, had a “very weak pulse”. “She was incubated immediately,” said a doctor in the Casualty Department. But her bloodstream was full of carbon monoxide and it caused her death.
Dr Rajesh Dere, professor of forensic medicine at KEM Hospital, said all the victims died of asphyxiation. “It appears all were locked in an enclosed place with no ventilation,” he said. “Combustion as a result of the fire led to the emission of carbon monoxide, which has an affinity towards haemoglobin in the blood. Continuously breathing carbon monoxide led to the creation of a poisonous gas in the body, which can lead to a painful death.”
At least some of the victims could have survived, Dere said, if they had received oxygen quickly. But Mehta claimed that his sister was taken to the hospital in a police van, not an ambulance, so treatment was delayed. However, deputy fire officer Hivrale insisted that all 55 people who were taken to various hospitals in the city were ferried in ambulances.
Most of the injured had only minor abrasions. KEM Hospital received 12 of the injured and they are all stable. “They all had superficial burns,” said Dr A Supe, the hospital’s dean.
The Kamala Mills tragedy has again brought into focus Mumbai’s inefficient implementation of safety standards. On December, 12 workers, most poor labourers from Uttar Pradesh, died of suffocation when their small manufacturing unit in the western suburb of Andheri caught fire.
On Friday, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation acted belatedly to suspend five of its officials for “failing to perform their duties” to inspect restaurants like 1Above and ensure that they were adhering to fire safety regulations.
The municipal commissioner, Ajoy Mehta, launched an enquiry into the incident, but only after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis asked him to.
Assistant Commissioner Prashant Sakpale said 1Above and some other restaurants in the area had been served notices in August and September for “illegally using open spaces for restaurant purpose”.