At Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital on Tuesday, Somshekhar, 57, calmly answered questions from the police after he identified the bodies of his mother, brother and sister. They, Somshekhar, and his two nephews had come to Delhi from Kerala on February 7 for a wedding the following day, and stayed at Hotel Arpit Palace in central Delhi’s Karol Bagh.

At around 4.30 am on Tuesday, while the family was getting ready to leave for Haridwar for a short visit, Somshekhar said that the electricity at the hotel went off and then came back on. “I started to smell something,” he said. “My sister and mother were in the room adjacent to me. My brother was in another room. When I opened the room door I saw smoke everywhere. I could not open the windows so I broke it with a chair.”

A fire had broken out in the 46-room hotel.

Somshekhar and his family were lodged on the second floor of the five-storey building. He said after he broke the windowpanes, fire fighters rescued him and his nephews who were staying in the room with him. “My sister kept telling us to run out and she started crying,” he said. “My mother tried to escape but she is too old. We planned to go back to Kochi on Friday.”

His mother Nalini Amma, 84, brother PC Vidyasagar, 60, and sister Jayashree, 53, were among the 17 guests and hotel staff who died in the fire. According to the police, most of them suffocated to death.

Fire department officials said there were 53 people in the hotel out of which 35 were rescued. They said one person is still missing and three people were injured.

Firefighters at the site of the fire in a Karol Bagh hotel, in Delhi, on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).
Firefighters at the site of the fire in a Karol Bagh hotel, in Delhi, on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).

How it started

Hotel Arpit Palace is situated in a narrow lane among several other hotels, residential buildings and even a school.

Photographs and videos in news reports showed the hotel’s top floor in flames. The fire, however, had started on the first floor, said Deputy Chief Fire Officer Sunil Choudhary. He indicated that the toll could have been lower if the fire department was informed immediately. “Initially, the employees of the hotel tried to douse the fire but then they could not so we got a call around 4.30 am from neighbours who informed us of the fire,” he said. “We could have saved more people if we were informed earlier.”

Choudhary said most hotel guests were asleep when the fire started. Since the windows seemed to be jammed shut, the smoke and fire remained within the building, he said. “Most people died due to suffocation,” said Choudhary. “The hotel had flammable material on the walls such as fibre, so the corridors through which people wanted to escape were burning. The hotel had fire safety equipment. We will investigate to see if rules were flouted.”

Choudhary added that the fifth floor of the hotel, on which a restaurant stood, “seemed illegal”. The restaurant was badly damaged in the fire. According to the fire certificate issued to the hotel by the Delhi government in 2014, the fifth floor was “closed by bricks”.

The police has filed a first information report in connection with the case while the Delhi government has also ordered a magisterial probe.

Delhi Home Minister Satyendar Jain, who visited the site on Tuesday morning, said buildings in the area had more than four floors, which violated building norms. He ordered the Fire Services Department to carry out an inspection of the commercial buildings in the area. “We saw a canopy was put up on the terrace and tables and chairs were laid out. Inside in the rooms, wooden panels were there on the walls,” he told The Hindu.

Firefighters at Hotel Arpit Palace on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).
Firefighters at Hotel Arpit Palace on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).

The hotel guests

Of the 17 victims of the fire, 12 have been identified, four are yet to be identified while one was “beyond recognition”, according to the police.

The victims who have been identified are PC Vidyasagar, 59; P Nalini Amma, 84; Nand Kumar, 34; Aravinth Sukumaran, 35; Pranav Kumar Bhaskar, 33; EVS Chalapattirao, 50; Jayashree PC, 53; Rabia Jusafbhai, 52; Tara Chand, 30; Lal Chand, 45; Suresh Kumar, 42; and two Myanmar nationals identified as Dawmla May, 67, and Tun Hla Sein, 32.

While 13 of the deceased were taken to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, two were brought to Lady Hardinge Medical College and two others were admitted to BL Kapur Super Speciality Hospital.

At Ram Manohar Lohia hospital, families and guardians of the deceased crowded the information desk while the police were sorting through identity markers such as watches and gold chains.

While waiting outside the information desk, Tulsi Ram said that his brother Lal Chand worked as a supervisor at the hotel. “He had a night shift,” Ram said. “He has been working at the hotel since 25 years. His son saw the hotel catch fire in the morning while going to school and then informed me at 8 am. The last time I spoke to [Lal] Chand was at 8 pm yesterday [February 11]. No one from the hotel authority has helped us so far.”

Another victim, Pranav Kumar Bhaskar, was an employee of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. “Pranav came here for a meeting from Hyderabad,” said Ashish Kumar, a relative. “We spoke to him two days back and he was supposed to return today [February 12].”

The police identified EVS Chalapatti Rao as another employee of Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited. He was visiting Delhi from Vishakhapatnam.

Tara Chand worked as a chef at the hotel, said a relative who did not wish to be identified. “I came to know through a family member that there was a fire,” he said. “The last time I spoke to him was three years back.”

Nand Kumar and Aravinth Sukumaran were visitors from Tamil Nadu. They work at a garment factory there, which is headquartered in Gurgaon.

The brother of a hotel staff member who died in the fire outside a mortuary at Lady Hardinge Hospital in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).
The brother of a hotel staff member who died in the fire outside a mortuary at Lady Hardinge Hospital in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Photo credit: AFP).

‘Unauthorised construction’

On Tuesday, many local residents came to gawk at the hotel. Fragments of its shattered windowpanes were scattered below the building.

“This area is completely commercial now unlike what it was 10 years back,” said Rajiv Tyagi, 50, who lives behind the hotel. “The hotel is an unauthorised construction because this whole area is a residential neighbourhood. There are more than 100 hotels here which were earlier houses. These hotels do not follow safety measures either.”

Another resident, Saro Singh, 60, who lives a street away, said it had become difficult to live in the area because of the movement of vehicles to and from the hotels. “I have been a resident [of the area] since 15 years,” Singh said. “I am sure that the top floor of the hotel is illegal. And the area has become so congested, there is no space for even the ambulance to pass. It is very harmful for residents like us to live here.”

A senior secondary school stands next to the hotel. “It is a great cause of concern if a school is right next to the hotel which caught fire,” said Archana Konde who had come to drop off her daughter at school.