The Uphaar Cinema Fire Tragedy has been one of the worst fire tragedies in Indian history. On a fateful day on June 13, 1997, during the movie screening of popular Hindi film 3-to-6 pm, at Uphaar Cinema Hall, Green Park in Delhi around 100 people got seriously injured and trapped inside, and 59 people died on the spot.
On 13 June 1997, in the early morning hours, one of the power transformers installed and maintained by DVB on the ground floor of the Uphaar Cinema building caught fire. The fire brigade and the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) were informed and the fire was brought under control by 7.25 a.m. Inspection of the transformer by the Superintendent of the DVB and his team revealed that three of the low tension cable leads of the transformer got partially burnt. Around 10.30 a.m., Inspectors from DVB along with Senior Fitter conducted repairs on the transformer after which the transformer was recharged for the resumption of electric supply.
Later in the day, it is alleged that the repairs done on the transformer was unsatisfactory and resulted in loose connections that caused sparking on the B-Phase of the transformer where such repairs were carried out. Loose cables came off and started dangling loose along the radiator and burnt a hole in the radiator fin. Through this hole, the transformer oil started leaking out which, on account of the heat generated by the loose cable touching against the radiator, ignited the oil at about 4.55 p.m. on 13 June 1997. Since the transformer did not have an oil soak pit as required under the regulations and the standard practice, the oil that spread out of the enclosure continued leaking and spreading the fire to the adjacent parking lot where cars were parked at a distance of no more than a meter from the door of the transformer. The result was that all the cars parked in the parking area on the ground floor of the cinema hall were ablaze. The smoke started billowing in the northern and southward directions in the parking lot of the cinema complex and encountered a gate which was adjacent to a staircase leading to the cinema auditorium on the first floor. Due to the chimney effect, the smoke gushed into the stairwell and entered the cinema hall through a door and through the air conditioning ducts.
All this while when people were glued to the screens enjoying the matinee show of popular Hindi movie ‘Border’ based on the patriotic theme, the fire had engulfed the whole place.
Because of smoke and carbon monoxide released by the burning oil and other combustible material, the people in the auditorium started suffocating. The Shift In-charge of the Green Park Complaint Centre of DVB received a telephonic message at the relevant point of time, regarding the fire. It was only then that the AIIMS grid to which the transformer in question was connected was switched off and the flow of energy to the cinema complex stopped. According to the prosecution, the supply of the 11 KV outgoing Green Park Feeder tripped off at 5.05 p.m. thereby discontinuing the supply of energy to the cinema. Inside the auditorium and balcony, there was complete chaos.
- No public announcements were made to rescue or guide the way out
- No fire alarms to make people alert to the situation
- No information to the Projector Operator about the incident, the movie kept playing while the fire was raging
- Exit doors to the middle entrance of the balcony were found to be bolted by the gatekeeper and no staff at the exit
- More importantly, the addition of extra seats had completely closed off the exit
- The middle entrance was significantly narrower than required under the regulations
- The people in the balcony are said to have rushed towards the exit in pitch darkness as there were neither emergency lights nor any cinema staff to help or guide them.
- All these obstructions, deviations, violations and deficiencies resulted in the victims getting trapped in the balcony for at least 10–15 minutes exposing them to lethal carbon monoxide, to which as many as 59 persons eventually succumbed
- Fire extinguishing services were delayed due to the heavy evening traffic and the location of the cinema hall, and it took them over an hour to put out the fire
After nearly two decades, Gopal Ansal, one of the owners of the theatre was sentenced to one-year imprisonment (to serve only six months) while his brother Sushil Ansal has been let go due to his advanced age. Not only is the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy were not satisfied with the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court on February 9, and also believes that through a mercy petition, attempts are being made to even deny whatever sense of solace the order may have provided.
Fit to play golf, not to serve jail term’
In the light of the reasoning provided by the apex court, she also demanded to know why in the case of accused Sushil Ansal, who at 76 is “fit to play golf, carry on his business activities and also make plans to relocate overseas”, the Supreme Court had found him too old to serve the jail time.
The court had while reviewing its 2015 judgment ordered a one-year jail term to Gopal but allowed the elder brother Sushil to walk free because of his age after he had served a five-month sentence. Krishnamoorthy said she has learned that now attempts are being made to secure a mercy plea for Gopal as well.