Prized flora and fauna specimens, including a 160 million-year-old fossil of a sauropod’s femur, fossilised eggs and stuffed models of two extinct vultures, two Asiatic lions, a white tiger and a giant dolphin, were destroyed early Tuesday after a fire devastated the National Museum of Natural History at the FICCI building in New Delhi.
The Delhi Fire Services said the building had no fire clearance and the fire-fighting equipment there were not functional. It took firemen on 35 fire tenders over four hours to douse the flames.
No casualty was reported but at least six firemen needed medical attention in the operation to control the blaze that was noticed at 1.45 am. It is not clear what led to the blaze. Police registered a case on a complaint from the Director of the FICCI building. “A case under IPC Section 436 (mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy house) has been registered against unknown persons,” DCP (New Delhi) Jatin Narwal said.
Dr B Venugopal, Director, National Museum of Natural History, said: “All exhibits were precious. We feel really sad that all our work is gone.”
Asked if the building met fire safety norms, Venugopal said, “We have followed all norms. There was adequate fire safety mechanism in place.” He said the FICCI building had been rented for the museum.
Vikas Rana, educational assistant at the museum, said: “We do not know the extent of the damage as a survey cannot be conducted. But from the scale of the fire, we believe we have lost at least 200 exhibits.”
Deputy Fire Chief Rajesh Panwar said: “The fire safety systems were there but they were not functioning at the time when we tried to operate them. Had they been working, the fire would have been curtailed at the earliest. We had to rely only on our resources.”
Preliminary investigations showed the building did not have a fire clearance certificate and that a NOC (no objection certificate) from the fire department was approved only for the auditorium.
“They got the NOC from the fire department for the auditorium premises and it was last renewed on December 31, 2015,” a senior fire department officer said.
First responders to the fire also said fire safety equipment in the building were not functional. “On every floor, there was a fire extinguisher but none worked. Also, the water motor of the reservoir did not work. We had to install our own motors to draw water from an the reservoir,” another fire officer said.
FICCI denied any lapse on its part. Rajiv Tyagi, Media Head (FICCI), said: “All fire safety measures were in place. This building is approved and cleared by the Government of India. We host functions for the government and big dignitaries frequent these premises. There are at least 15 security guards on the premises every night, and 35 during the day. The guards noticed the fire and called the authorities. In a fire this big, nothing would work anyway. This fire is a serious case of an accident.”
At 1.45 am, security personnel saw smoke billowing from the top floor of the building. A call was made to the fire services and a few fire tenders were rushed from the Connaught Place fire station. No one was in the building at the time, fire services said.
“My security personnel called and informed me about the smoke. I instructed them to call the fire services. By then, I reached the spot. I also informed FICCI members who too arrived in some time,” Jagmohan Bisht, the caretaker in charge of security at the FICCI premises, said.
Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar reached the spot around 8.30 am. He announced that a fire safety audit would be conducted for all 34 museums under the Ministry.
“We are assessing the loss. There were thousands of specimens which have been destroyed…This building was rented out to the Ministry by FICCI, so we had limitations. We will try to recover what we can,” Javadekar said.
The building, a part of which was under renovation, was sealed by the NDMC later in the day.
— With Abhishek Angad