Blaze at illegal market kills at least 19 in east Indian city

KOLKATA (AP) - A top Indian fire official says 19 people have been killed in an early morning fire at a market in the eastern city of Kolkata.

West Bengal Fire Minister Javed Khan said the blaze broke out before 4am local time on Wednesday and it was caused by a short circuit.

The fire was releasing toxic gasses that were hampering rescue efforts, according to the minister.

A police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said at least 19 people had died. He said police were looking for the owner of the building, which was filled with dozens of small shops selling  various plastic products.  At least 10 people were hospitalised in critical condition and the death toll was expected to rise, Mr Khan said.  He called the scene of the fire “an illegal, unauthorized market.”  However, local residents said the market had been operating in the building for nearly 40 years. They said there was only one entrance to the building, which made rescue efforts difficult.   The building housed several warehouses on its upper floors, where chemicals, paper and plastics were stored.  Police said the victims were porters working in the market, who also slept there at night. Seventeen of the dead were men. In December 2011, at least 93 people died in a deadly fire in a hospital in Kolkata. Soon after that, the state’s top elected official had promised that her government would crackdown on lax safety procedures in public buildings. Safety regulations are routinely ignored in India, where fire stairways and evacuation drills are rare. Even if fire extinguishers are present, they are commonly several years old and never serviced.