The Last Brigade Call

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The Last Brigade Call

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/Arré

O

n a typically warm summer night last May, there was a casual get-together in the compound of the Chembur fire station. A few firemen were sipping drinks and catching up after a hard day’s work.

The Chembur fire station is a fairly large open space, surrounded by trees, living quarters of the resident firemen, and shiny red fire trucks. The mood was relaxed. As the men swapped stories from work, their wives socialised, and the children chased a young litter of kittens.

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In one corner, Ravindra Nikam and his mentor Sudhir Amin were having a quiet drink. They’d known each other for years, ever since Nikam was a freshman. Nikam says he’d always looked up to Amin and had heard stories of the exemplary courage his mentor had shown during the horrific 26/11 attacks. While the group of firemen attempted to fathom the extent of the massacre on that fateful November night, it was the heroic Amin who led from the front. He climbed through a window, entered the fourth floor of the Taj hotel and rescued several trapped guests. For this act of bravery, he was honoured with the President’s Medal for Gallantry. Amin was a legend both on and off the field. At the fire station, he was known fondly as “Parade ka Baadshah”.

Nikam snapped out of his thoughts as the conversation shifted toward Amin’s birthday. He was never the kind to have a big celebration, opting instead for the token cake-cutting. But for his 50th birthday, Amin wanted something grand – with all his family, friends, and colleagues in one room, maybe at a nearby resort.

“After all, it comes only once,” Amin had told the young Nikam. He agreed wholeheartedly and resolved to make Amin’s birthday special. He would speak to all the other officers in the department. Everyone was fond of “Amin Sir”, and together they would make sure that the celebrations were grand. The men had raised a toast and drank to life, not knowing that the next day their lives would change.


The Chembur fire station is a fairly large open space, surrounded by trees, living quarters of the resident firemen, and shiny red fire trucks.

Naimish Keswani/Arré

Nobody could have guessed that the fire at Gokul Niwas in Kalbadevi would be a fire they would talk about for years to come.

Gokul Niwas was an old residential building that had long since been converted into an illegal commercial centre. This ugly urban settlement with crisscrossing wires was full of shops selling everything from sarees to silverware. Nestled somewhere on the third floor was a row of tiny gold workshops that stacked gas cylinders and chemicals for polishing gold. Later, it was found that these chemicals and cylinders combined with polyester from the saree shops had led to the horrifying blaze.

The fire, which started at noon, was set off by a spark in the electricity meter room on the ground floor, and spread quickly to the first and the second floors. The occupants didn’t need smoke sirens to signal that something was wrong. The corridors filled with the smell of burnt electric wires and the heat began to spread. Smoke – so grey and thick that even sunlight couldn’t penetrate – began to fill the tiny rooms. The terrified residents, blinded by their stinging eyes, relied purely on instinct to somehow reach the terrace. From there, they frantically dialled the fire station.

The first officer on the scene was Amol Mulik. A fresh-faced 30-year-old, he laid the groundwork for the rescue effort. A team of officers got to the second floor with the help of a firetruck ladder and used the hose to get the flames under control. Another team was sent to the terrace of the opposite building to help stranded residents. Curtailing the fire was important, but saving lives was the need of the hour. It is set protocol in the department — first get the people out, and then strategise on how to douse the fire. The latter usually involves senior officials assessing the situation, locating the source, and directing all outside resources toward it.

By 4 pm, all the residents of Gokul Niwas had been rescued. Chief Fire Officer Sunil Nesrikar, Amin and two other officers made their way into the building, carefully dodging the burning debris and muffling their mouths against the bitter, acrid smoke that was just as likely to kill them.

Armed with a water hose, Mulik entered after his seniors. But as soon as he walked in, a strong pair of hands pushed him down onto the floor. As Mulik fell on the ground, a loud bang filled the air – a cylinder had exploded on one of the upper floors. Within seconds, he was surrounded by a wall of debris, dust and fire. Mulik was on his back, unharmed. Amin had saved his life, but was nowhere to be seen.

The cylinder blast had made the fire fiercer. The on-site officers decided that they needed additional resources and begun making brigade calls, commandeering all resources from surrounding areas.

Officer Nikam was on his way when one of the drivers called him from the scene. “Amin saab phaslele ahet,” Nikam heard over the static of the phone. His heart skipped a beat as he pressed down hard on the accelerator.

 


Nikam says he’d always looked up to to Amin for his exemplary courage.

Courtesy: Ravindra Nikam

By the time Nikam reached Gokul Niwas, Chief Nesrikar had walked out of the building – engulfed in flames – and had collapsed on the ground. The other firefighters ran toward him, covered him with blankets and doused the fire. Quickly, they despatched him to the National Burns Centre in Airoli where he would be treated for third-degree burns.

Nikam turned his attention away from Nesrikar, and entered the building to rescue Amin and the two other officers. After a few minutes of stumbling in the dark, fiercely hot interiors of the building, he caught sight of Amin trapped waist down in debris. A team of men was frantically trying to pull him out and Nikam joined them immediately.

It was over 100 degrees in the cavity and Amin’s body was already covered with blistering red burns. He was shouting for help as scorching remnants of the building continued falling on him. His wails slowly became softer and softer. Nikam ignored the roiling in his stomach and dug with all his might.

Once they were able to uncover the upper layer of the debris, they discovered that Amin’s right leg was stuck underneath an i-beam, a piece of metal that weighed over 20 kilogrammes. Just then, there was another blast upstairs and the team knew that they’d have to work fast. They had very little time left before the entire building would collapse on them. Now, instead of trying to lift the i-beam, they dug the debris underneath it. After fifteen minutes of digging with streaming eyes, the officers made just enough space to pull out the leg from under the massive beam.

An almost unconscious Amin was brought out of the building by a frantic team of firefighters, most of whom he had coached over the years. They looked helplessly distraught, as his now-charred body was taken to the ambulance, which screeched off into the city traffic. As the men watched their leader go, Gokul Niwas collapsed behind them. There was no trace of the two other officers.

Now all they could hope was that they’d managed to save Amin.

***

On May 14 last year, 28 days short of his 50th birthday, Officer Sudhir Amin succumbed to 90 per cent fourth-degree burns and multiple organ failure. A year later, tales of his bravery are still passed down as legends to young recruits. On June 11 this year, Nikam and Mullik will raise a toast in honour of their brave mentor on his 51st birthday.

They just wish he’d got his grand celebration.

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