Uphaar cinema shell still conjures up images of death and destruction

Right from its hoarding to the first step of the ramshackle stairs leading to the battered windows, the building conjures up an eerie feeling of death and destruction. The walls, left in ruins, and the dust gathered on its doors, dont help either.

Uphaar cinema, 26 years after the infamous ‘Uphaar fire tragedy’ during the screening of the movie ‘Border’ and once a hub of entertainment, is today nothing less than a haunted building.

Years have gone by and so have the challenged convictions and

compensation, yet the building continues to hold its ground as a memento to horrific memories, a lifetime of regret and loss of

livelihood, nevertheless a turning point in the lives of many.

So much has changed in the last 26 years. Most of the shopkeepers who tried to save as many people as they could, have either shifted their business from here or their children are now running shops and restaurants.

The entire front area of the cinema is now a parking spot.

Manish was 13 years old and witnessed the Uphaar tragedy. His father Bittoo used to run a ‘Chole Bhature’ shop just adjacent to Vishnu Dhaba and both were opposite the theatre’s main entry gate.

Now, Manish along with his brother, Yash, still runs the restaurant in a shop near the cinema hall.

Recalling the day, Manish said that there was a short circuit in the transformer during the first show of the movie at the theatre at around 12.30 p.m. but no one paid much heed to it.

“When the second show of the movie was going on, around 4 p.m there was black smoke coming out of the cinema hall. Everyone who was outside the theatre gathered and there was panic among them,” said Manish.

When the incident took place on June 13, 1997, Manish was with his father Bittoo, who passed away four years ago.

“I don’t remember much but as people were coming out of the theatre, I along with my father, was giving the water bottles, which were in our restaurant, and arranging a place for them to sit,” says Manish.

“I saw people jumping out of the windows of the building and even throwing their kids to save lives,” says Manish.

During the morning show of the movie on June 13, 1997, the bigger of the two transformers on Uphaar cinema’s ground floor caught fire. Even though the fire was swiftly extinguished, the transformer was damaged.

An electrician quickly repaired it only to open the theatre. Since the repair wasn’t done properly, the transformer caught fire again after one of its cables came loose and caused intense sparking. This time it was the second show.

The transformer reportedly didn’t have an oil soak pit, which is mandatory as per regulations, and this caused the burning oil to spread to other areas. Even cars at a distance were engulfed in the much higher flames.

The smoke entered the cinema hall and the theatre had lost power.

Viewers on the lower floor were able to escape, while people sitting on the balcony were trapped.

The cinema hall did not have exit lights, footlights, or emergency lights, and became pitch dark when the theatre lost power. No public announcement system was in place to alert the viewers about the fire.

Numerous exit gates were locked, while gangways were blocked as the cinema hall had unauthorised extensions to increase seating capacity and business.

A total of 59 people lost their lives due to asphyxiation.

Due to the chaos, over 100 people were injured in a stampede to

escape. Crucially, due to the heavy traffic, fire tenders took over an hour to reach the spot.

“There were long queues of vehicles leading to massive traffic jams in the area even after four hours of the incident,” said Manish.

(Shekhar Singh can be reached at shekhar.s@ians.in)




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