Hundred days after fire: Stephen Court is a ghost building

By Aparajita Gupta, IANS,

Kolkata : The dreadful scenes of people jumping to their deaths and mangled and completely charred bodies – mainly of youngsters – being taken out in heaps from the gutted floors of Stephen Court are still fresh in public memory. A hundred days after the killer fire engulfed its major portions, the landmark mansion on Kolkata’s bustling Park Street stands like a haunted house in a busy part of downtown Kolkata, large parts of it mired in darkness.

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Of the four blocks of the sprawling century-old building that houses the iconic Flurys tea room, two were worst affected in the March 23 fire that killed 43 people and are still closed.

A handful of offices have reopened and a few residents are back in the other two blocks. But they were allowed in only after furnishing personal risk bonds. Common areas like staircases and landings are still pitch dark sans electricity, while the civic authorities have refused to supply water, citing the precarious condition of the edifice after the fire.

As one walks into the building, cobwebs of wires on the walls present an ominous sight. A few policemen man the main gate, while a handful of people are seen in the courtyard. But the earlier din and bustle associated with Stephen Court, one of the famous addresses of the city, seems lost forever.

The fifth and sixth floors of the two blocks under lift numbers one and two faced the fury of the fire and are still a no-go area. Only residents and commercial space occupants of those blocks are allowed to come and take away their belongings from time to time.

But life is tough for those who have returned in the other two blocks, under lift numbers three and four.

“Our office opened a few days back. One or two more offices have also opened. But nothing is working over here…no

electricity, no water,” Parmeswar Kumar, an employee of Nasa Travels, whose office is located on the ground floor of block three, told IANS.

Kumar is thankful to the almighty as he was on leave on that fateful day when fire broke out, first in lift number two, with the leaping flames soon devouring two of the blocks.

“We opened our office three weeks back. During the interim period we operated from my home. It was very difficult to work like that. We were not allowed to move in, though our portion is not affected, but now we moved in by signing risk bonds,” Somini Sen-Dua of NextGen Communications told IANS.

Asked whether she was there in office on the day of fire, Somini said: “Yes we were. We all ran out like rats.”

The landmark shops and eateries – Flurys, Music World, One Step Up and Peter Cat — are open, and stand in stark contrast to the gloom that pervades in large parts of the building, constructed in 1910 by an Armenian, Stephen Arathoon.

D.K. Bibra, an optometrist, has returned to his flat in the same block with his family. His father took the flat on lease in 1955.

Bibra rued that there is no electricity and water in the passages, staircases and other common areas.

“We are using our own metres. They have disconnected the metres run by the owner, Stephen Court Limited. The lifts are not operating,” he said.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) has sealed all the 12 water tanks on the roof of the building, saying the condominium does not have the strength to carry the heavy water tanks.

“They have sealed the tanks saying it is risky, but what about the 12 mobile telephone towers on the roof of the building? Aren’t those adding to the weight?” an agitated Bibra asked.

“We have to buy water from the KMC water tanks that comes here every day,” he said.

Bibra and his young son saved several lives March 23. But he ultimately had to vacate his flat with his family, which includes his nonagenarian mother.

“During power cuts we have to sit in the dark as they have disconnected the building generator’s line,” he said.

“There is dead silence from the administration side,” added Bibra.

Octogenarian Irene Harris, the granddaughter of builder Stephen Arathoon stays in block four along with her 89-year old British husband Jimmy.

The couple is childless and give each other company. “We have moved in recently. It is very difficult without a lift,” Jimmy Harris told IANS.

(Aparajita Gupta can be contacted at [email protected])