A day after 17 workers, most of them women, were killed in a fire at a chemical plant in Pune district, an inquiry committee said on Tuesday that a large stock of sanitisers stored with inflammable materials may have aggravated the fire.
The police, meanwhile, have registered a case of culpable homicide against one of the owners of the firm, alleging “gross negligence”, and arrested him late at night.
A case was registered against Nikunj Shah, one of the owners of SVS Aqua Technologies, under relevant section of the Indian Penal Code for “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”, said Abhinav Deshmukh, Superintendent of Police (SP), Pune rural. Shah was questioned and later put under arrest.
The case was registered following an inquiry report submitted by a committee headed by Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) Sandesh Shirke, the SP said.
The preliminary probe showed that the company had not followed fire safety norms and building permission rules, he said.
There were no emergency exit doors and open spaces (where people can take refuge in case of fire), Mr Deshmukh alleged.
According to some of the workers, the doors of the section where the fire started got locked, and the local people had to use JCB machines to break down the walls to rescue those inside.
“In a nutshell, the company officials did not take necessary precautions despite knowing that the materials they were using were combustible,” Mr Deshmukh said.
Asked about the cause of the fire, he said the material used in the manufacturing of chlorine dioxide (used for water purification) is combustible, and heat due to friction or a spark might have acted as trigger.
“But at this juncture, gross negligence on the part of the firm is being seen, and on that basis, an offence has been registered,” he added.
Asked if the company manufactured sanitisers, Abhinav Deshmukh said it did not seem so. A small quantity of sanitisers was found but it could be for the use by the employees, he said.
Some locals had alleged that the company was also making sanitisers — which are inflammable — without a license.
Another official later said that sanitisers seemed to have played a role in the tragedy. The firm apparently used to source sanitiser liquid from outside, repackage it, and sell it, he said.
“We have found around 20,000 to 30,000 bottles of sanitisers in the inventory. Similar half-burnt bottles were found at the fire-ravaged spot,” said Abhay Chavam, tehsildar, Mulshi.
Sanitisers were not produced at the plant as no raw material and machinery needed for that was found, he added.
There was also a possibility that the raw material used for making chlorine dioxide came in contact with sanitisers, stored in the same place, and led to explosions, he said.
“In the first five minutes, two big explosions took place and later the fire spread rapidly everywhere and it is possible only after some highly inflammable material came in contact with the fire,” he said.
Another district official, requesting anonymity, said that the inquiry committee report pointed out that sanitiser aggravated the fire while the dark smoke caused by sodium chloride made it difficult for the victims to find a way out.
Inflammable raw material was stored in the same place where the actual work took place, he said.
The report also noted that the firm did not have the necessary no objection certificates from the fire department and there was no firefighting mechanism or equipment at the plant
Mr Deshmukh, meanwhile, said the death count was 17. SDM Shirke had earlier put the death count at 18.
According to the company officials too, there were 17 workers inside the section when the fire started around 3.30 pm on Monday.
As the bodies were charred beyond recognition, blood samples of relatives have been taken for DNA matching to identify those killed, Mr Deshmukh said.
To speed up the procedure, samples are being sent to an Aurangabad laboratory besides the Pune one, he said.
The identification process is expected to be completed in four days, he added.
Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had said an inquiry will be conducted and a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each will be given to the families of the victims.