NEW DELHI — At least 43 people were killed Sunday morning when one of the worst fires in recent memory in New Delhi broke out in a cramped, commercial neighborhood, officials said.
The blaze erupted around 5:30 a.m. in a multistory building used for making paper products and purses. Atul Garg, New Delhi’s chief fire officer, said firefighters initially struggled to douse the flames because narrow lanes blocked access to the area, which is full of dilapidated buildings.
“This is the second-biggest fire in Delhi’s history,” he said.
The building in the Anaj Mandi neighborhood of northeastern New Delhi was packed with sleeping laborers when the fire broke out. Most of the victims were Muslim migrant workers from impoverished Bihar State in eastern India, The Associated Press reported. They earned as little as 150 rupees (about $2.10) per day making handbags, caps and other garments, it said.
Investigators blamed an electrical short-circuit for the fire, the AP reported. Safety standards are poorly enforced in India and are linked to many deaths.
Kishore Kumar, an official at Lok Nayak Hospital, where victims were taken, said most of the dead appeared to have suffocated as they slept. He said at least 20 other people were being treated for injuries.
“Their only fault was they were poor,” a man named Babar Ali, 32, told the AP. “Why else would someone work and sleep in such a congested place?” Mr. Ali, who used to work in the same building, called the workers’ difficult lives “a bigger tragedy than their death.”
In Anaj Mandi, residents climbed to the roofs of their buildings to watch the tragedy unfold as rescuers struggled to evacuate the injured. It took firefighters nearly an hour to control the fire because only one vehicle could reach the building.
Inside, rescuers found at least 50 people unconscious. When they broke gates obstructing access to the top floor, they discovered more workers sleeping.
“It was very dark inside,” said Sunil Choudhary, a fire department officer.
The chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, announced compensation of about $14,000 to relatives of each person who died. The government has opened a seven-day investigation into the disaster.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the blaze “extremely horrific” in a post on Twitter. “My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones,” he said.
Fires occur regularly in India, largely because of faulty electrical wiring and lax fire and building regulations.
Last year, a fire at an industrial building on the outskirts of New Delhi left at least 17 dead. And in February, at least 17 people were killed when a blaze broke out in a hotel.
Even deadlier was a blaze at a theater in June 1997, when 59 people were killed at Uphaar Cinema in one of the city’s most upscale areas.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.