Breaches of safety rules blamed for New Delhi hotel fire

The Hotel Arpit Palace passed a fire safety check in December 2017, but a copy of the initial police investigation showed several breaches of fire regulations.
The Hotel Arpit Palace passed a fire safety check in December 2017, but a copy of the initial police investigation showed several breaches of fire regulations.PHOTO: AFP

Building passed safety checks 14 months ago but probe of fire that killed 17 finds violations

NEW DELHI • A hotel that caught fire in the Indian capital, killing 17 people, passed safety checks 14 months ago, but an investigation has revealed breaches of regulations, such as faulty alarms, prompting a mass re-inspection of other hotels.

Poorly enforced regulations lead to thousands of deaths in fires across India each year and officials in New Delhi say an overstretched fire service is hampering safety efforts.

The Hotel Arpit Palace passed a fire safety check in December 2017, but a copy of the initial police investigation showed several breaches of fire regulations, including a lack of signs to guide guests to exits and fire alarms that did not work.

Delhi's fire service, which is responsible for safety inspections as well as fighting fires, is now reviewing certificates issued to more than 1,500 hotels in one of India's tourist hubs, a senior fire official said.

But stretched resources mean the re-inspection process could take months. "Fire officers have to do a lot of work," said Delhi chief fire officer Vipin Kental. "We have to be inspectors and fight fires. We do not have the manpower."

The city has around 1,700 firefighters, he said, which is less than an eighth of the number in New York, a city with less than half of Delhi's population.

The fire is believed to have begun on the hotel's first floor on Tuesday, spreading quickly through wood-panelled corridors, police say.

  • 2,000

    Number of fire stations in India, although more than 8,500 fire stations are needed.

    >17,000

    Number of people who died in fires in 2015.

    1,700

    Number of firefighters in Delhi, which is less than an eighth of the number in New York, a city with less than half of Delhi's population.

Among the dead were members of a wedding party from Kerala and two Myanmar Buddhist pilgrims.

"From the outside, the building looked intact, but inside everything was completely charred," a police officer said.

Two of the 17 died after jumping out of windows in desperation after failing to find emergency exits, added the officer, who declined to be named.

"Fire preparedness is a matter of shockingly low priority in most parts of the country," said an editorial in the Indian Express, one of the country's leading newspapers.

A study last year by India's Home Ministry found that the country had just 2,000 of the more than 8,500 fire stations it needs.

Over 17,000 people died in fires in 2015, according to data from the ministry, the last year for which figures are available. Fire is one of the leading causes of accidental death in India. Fire safety is an issue for shanty towns and some of India's most expensive real estate.

 

A day after the Arpit Palace disaster, over 250 makeshift homes were destroyed in a slum in Paschim Puri, a poor area of New Delhi, though no one was killed. In 2017, 14 people were killed during a birthday party at a high-end bar in India's financial capital of Mumbai.

In several upscale Delhi neighbourhoods, police shut hundreds of shops and restaurants last year for operating on floors meant for residential use, though many continue to operate illegally, residents say.

By the boarded-up Arpit Palace, wires from adjacent hotels still trail across the street, though staff there said they were complying with fire regulations.

Adding to the safety problems, poorly paid staff in the hotel and restaurant industries are often unable to help guests when fires break out, Mr Kental said. "They are not trained. They don't know what to do in the event of a fire."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2019, with the headline 'Breaches of safety rules blamed for New Delhi hotel fire'. Print Edition | Subscribe