At least 43 people were killed when a massive fire ripped through a four-storey building housing illegal manufacturing units in north Delhi's congested Anaj Mandi area on Sunday morning, in the second deadliest blaze in the national capital.
Almost all the deceased were migrant labourers hailing from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Police and fire department officials said many of the fatalities occurred due to suffocation as the people were sleeping when the fire started at around 5 am on the second floor of the building that did not have fire safety clearance and was packed with combustible material like cardboards.
It took over 150 firefighters nearly five hours to douse the blaze.
As many as 63 people were pulled out from the building. While 43, including one minor, died, 16 were injured.
Two fire department personnel were hurt while carrying out rescue work, officials said.
Those awakened by the fire, suspected by officials to have been triggered by a short-circuit, had to struggle to escape as the exit routes were partially blocked and several windows were found sealed.
Police have arrested the property owner Rehan and his manager Furkan and a case has been registered under sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 285 (negligent conduct with respect to fire) of the IPC.
The case has been transferred to the Crime Branch.
The Delhi government ordered a magisterial probe into the tragedy, the worst fire accident in the national capital since the 1997 Uphaar cinema blaze that claimed 59 lives. It has sought a report within seven days.
More recently, a fire at hotel Arpit Palace in Karol Bagh left 17 dead in February this year.
Officials said 30 fire tenders were rushed after the blaze was first reported at 5.22 am in the Anaj Mandi building which housed manufacturing units for glass items, cardboards, handbags and other goods.
The building was packed with cardboards, plastic wrappings, garments, rexine, plastic toys and packaging items, aggravating the fire and resulting in dense smoke which suffocated the people trapped inside, they said.
The injured included two minors. However, it was not confirmed whether they worked in the units.
The narrow lanes of Anaj Mandi area made rescue operations difficult for firefighters, who had to cut window-grills to get access to the building.
Some injured were carried to the hospital in auto rickshaws.
A preliminary probe suggested that a short-circuit triggered the blaze. Power discom BYPL said the fire began due to 'internal system' trouble.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief over the loss of lives in the 'extremely horrific' incident and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said it was 'very, very tragic'.
Modi and Kejriwal also announced an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh respectively for the next of kin of each of those killed.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh each will be given to the families of the deceased.
Kejriwal also announced Rs 1 lakh for the injured and said his government will bear the cost of their treatment.
The Prime Minister approved Rs 50,000 each for those seriously injured. The amount will be paid from the Prime Minister National Relief Fund, the PMO said in a tweet.
North Delhi Mayor Avtar Singh said he has asked the municipal commissioner to form a team which will visit the site and probe the exact cause of the fire.
Chaotic scenes were witnessed at the site, clogged with bystanders and politicians arriving in convoys.
Firemen made their way through narrow lanes to rescue those trapped inside the blackened building and carried many unconscious labourers on their backs.
Firoz Khan, 32, who worked in a cap-manufacturing unit on the third floor and escaped unhurt, said the fire appeared to have started on the second floor and he could escape as he was sleeping near a door.
"When I got up, I saw flames engulfing the room in which we were sleeping. The door was around six metres away from me and I alerted other workers sleeping near me," he said.
"Four-five of us rushed out through the door. Many sleeping away from the door were trapped. I don't know if they are alive," he said.
As the building lacked proper ventilation, most of the people died due to asphyxia.
Aditya Pratap Singh, deputy commander of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), said they detected carbon monoxide (CO) in the building.
"The entire third and fourth floor was engulfed with smoke. The content of CO was more," he said.
He said when the team started the operation, it found some windows sealed.
The dead and injured were taken to LNJP, Lady Hardinge and RML hospitals, where distraught relatives had a hard time finding their family members.
An elderly man whose three nephews worked at the building said, "At least 12-15 machines were installed in the unit. I have no idea about the factory owner.
"My nephews Mohammed Imran and Ikramuddin were inside the factory. I don't know their whereabouts."
Imran and Ikramuddin were later found to be among the 43 dead.
34 people were brought dead to LNJP hospital and smoke inhalation was the primary cause of death.
Some of the bodies were charred, Dr Kishore Singh, Medical Superintendent, LNJP, said.
Nine people were brought dead to Lady Hardinge hospital.
Several leaders including Congress leaders Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi condoled the loss of lives.
Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues Imran Hussain and Satyendra Jain visited the site besides Union ministers Hardeep Singh Puri, Anurag Thakur and Harsh Vardhan, and BJP MPs Manoj Tiwari and Vijay Goel.
An intense political blame game erupted over the incident, with the Bharatiya Janata Party holding the Kejriwal government responsible for the incident and the AAP alleging that the saffron party was doing politics over dead bodies.
The Congress has accused both the BJP, which is power in all three municipal corporations in New Delhi, and the Aam Aadmi Party for the incident.
Overhead wires were dangling in the area and despite repeated complaints in this regard, government agencies did not take any action, claimed Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari.
"The (Arvind) Kejriwal government is responsible for this. The MCDs come under the BJP. They are also equally responsible for it," Delhi Congress Committee president Shubhash Chopra said.
Tiwari, on behalf of the BJP, announced Rs 5 lakh to the families of each of the deceased and Rs 25,000 for treatment of the injured.
The BJP has also cancelled its programmes for the day in view of the tragedy.
"This settlement should not be here, they have been given alternative places but the Delhi government has not shifted them," Union Minister Puri alleged.
Senior AAP leader and Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh said it was 'shameful' that BJP was indulging in politics over dead bodies.
"It is the BJP which is responsible for issuing licences for running manufacturing units in residential areas. Instead of accepting its responsibility, the BJP has started doing politics over the dead bodies of the victims," Singh charged.
Senior BJP functionary and Leader of Opposition in the Delhi assembly Vijender Gupta demanded that the Kejriwal government call an emergency session of the House to discuss ways to prevent such incidents.
Senior BJP leader and former Union minister Vijay Goel said it was the Delhi government's responsibility to take action against illegal factories running in residential areas and prevent incidents of fire .
"It has become a common thing now. Such incidents happen, inquiry is conducted but the government does not do anything. Factories running in residential areas are to be provided plots at alternative places but the government did not do it," he said.
Bihar's Water Resources Minister Sanjay Jha blamed Delhi's power department for the tragedy.
"I went to the spot, saw a mesh of overhanging wires. It was bound to happen. The power department is responsible for it. The Bihar CM is monitoring the situation and I believe the death toll will cross 43," he said.