War readiness may have been hit if Pulgaon blaze had spread

WARDHA/NEW DELHI:The Army recovered at least three more bodies from the fire-ravaged debris in the Army’s Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) at Pulgaon in Maharashtra taking the death toll in Tuesday’s fire to 19, even as details continued to emerge of how the military may have narrowly escaped a much bigger disaster.

The toll in the fire at the Central Ammunition Depot touched 19 on Wednesday, as three more bodies were found.

The war preparedness of the Army could have been dramatically affected had the fire spread to other storage facilities in the vicinity.

Army sources said DNA sampling was under way to identify the three bodies recovered on Wednesday. At least one more firefighter is suspected to be missing in the fire and blasts. About 130 tonnes of mines and other ammunition blew up in the fire and blasts, but it did not spread to nearby storage facilities. “One shed was completely blown up while another 3 sheds were slightly affected,” one officer said. Officials said that in such explosions much of the ammunition usually goes down into the earth, while the shards fly in all directions. The unexploded bombs make the cleaning-up process particularly dangerous.

The bigger task now is to sanitise the whole area, locate and defuse the ordnance, a senior officer said.

Army officers said the shed that saw the explosions is believed to have contained ammunition that was beyond its shelf life.

Casualties could have been averted, says firefighter

Casualties could have been averted in the Pulgaon Central Ammunition Depot (CAD) fire on Tuesday had the Army officers present on the spot asked the firefighting staff to move away and secure other sheds, according to an injured member of the civilian firefighters.

He was present near the shed when the blast took place.

Speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, the fireman said: “The admin officer Lt. Col. R.S. Pawar and the Installation Security Officer Major K. Manoj asked us to keep trying to douse the fire at the shed which was on fire. After a point of time, it was clear that the shed would explode. However, the officers did not ask us to move away. The shed was anyway going to explode and our men could have been saved by some timely orders by the officers. It was sheer luck that the fire did not spread to other sheds.”

Chandramani Lade, another member of the firefighting squad near the exploded shed, confirmed this version to a news channel.

“When we reached the location of fire, it was already out of control. It was clear that it could not be controlled. So we decided to hide behind our vehicles and somehow managed to save our lives,” Mr. Lade told the channel.

He also claimed that many of his colleagues were missing. Reacting to Mr. Lade’s claims on the missing men, the Collector said, “I don’t think so. We would have received missing complaints by now. There is only remote possibility of recovering more bodies from inside the depot. But nothing can be completely ruled out.”

Six bodies unidentified

According to some other sources, the fire at the shed began at around 12.15 a.m. However, the Army officers in-charge took a long time to act.

Three deceased were cremated in Pulgoan on Wednesday. However, six bodies could not be cremated as they are yet to be identified because of “mutilation beyond recognition.”

“We are taking the help of forensic experts. The bodies are likely to be identified and cremated within the next two days,” said Mr. Nawal.

Shameful, says Sena

Terming the massive fire at Pulgaon as something “abnormal,” the NDA ally Shiv Sena on Wednesday smelt sabotage behind it and asked the Centre to own up responsibility for the loss of lives and the huge stockpile of ammunition there.

“Our enemies like Pakistan and China must have been very happy to hear that a huge stockpile of ammunition has got destroyed. There would not have been so much loss even in a war. Our government only expresses sorrow over the loss of lives and order inquiries. It is shameful that there are laxities on such matters,” the Sena said in an editorial in party mouthpiece, Saamana. “This fire has raised many doubts and questions,” it said.