5 die in fire at Serum Institute of India's Manjari plant in Pune; Covishield production unaffected
AFP Photo

Mumbai: Five labourers were killed while six others were evacuated after a major fire broke out at the Serum Institute of India's SEZ 3 building, Manjri plant, in Pune, on Thursday afternoon. The cause of fire is being investigated, Pune fire brigade officials said.

It was doused three hours later, following a quick response from the Pune police and the fire brigade. A National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team was rushed to the spot.

The five deceased, whose charred bodies were recovered from inside the building have been identified as Rama Shankar Harijan and Bipin Saroj from Uttar Pradesh, Sushil Kumar Pandey from Bihar and Mahendra Ingale and Pratik Pashte from Pune. All five were contract labourers and involved in electrical work at the building, according to fire brigade officials.

The fire has not affected the production of the Covid-19 vaccine, authorities said.

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray spoke to SII CEO Adar Poonawalla and will visit the institute and take stock of the situation on Friday afternoon.

Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, who is guardian minister of Pune district, reached the institute on Thursday evening. He has ordered an inquiry and a fire audit. Pawar told The Free Press Journal, ‘‘I spoke to the Pune Municipal Commissioner and gathered the details. I have directed him to conduct a thorough inquiry into the incident,’’ he said. ‘‘The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. Furniture, wiring, cabins were gutted. No major machinery or instruments were stored on the floors where the fire broke out,’’ he added.

The probe will investigate if there was a manual or technical error and the sabotage angle. It will also check whether or not adequate fire management systems were in place in the building. This is crucial, especially considering that the SII had stored the Covishield vaccine in nearby buildings on the campus, for delivery within India and abroad.

A statement from Cyrus S. Poonawalla, Chairman & Managing Director, Serum Institute of India read: “Today is an extremely sorrowful day for all of us at Serum Institute of India. Regrettably, there were losses of lives in the fire that broke out in our under installation facility situated at the Special Economic Zone at Manjri. We are deeply saddened and offer our condolences to the families of the departed. In this regard, we will be offering a compensation of INR 25 lakhs to each of the families, in addition to the mandated amount as per the norms. We would like to extend our gratitude to everyone for their concerns and prayers in these distressing times.”

After initially tweeting that no lives had been lost, Adar Poonawala confirmed the casualties on Twitter. ‘‘We have just received some distressing updates; upon further investigation we have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life in the incident. We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed,’’ he tweeted.

Further, he said, ‘‘Thank you everyone for your concern and prayers. I would like to reassure all governments & the public that there would be no loss of #COVISHIELD production due to multiple production buildings that I had kept in reserve to deal with such contingencies at @SerumInstIndia. Thank you very much @PuneCityPolice & Fire Department.’’

The Centre has sought a report on the incident.

The fire call was received around 2.45pm, in response to which 10 fire tenders and at least two jumbo tankers were rushed to the spot, said Prashant Ranpise, Chief Fire Officer, Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC).

“Thick smoke was a hurdle in fire-fighting. The fire had spread all across the third, fourth and fifth floors of the building. It is a new facility of the SII and was under construction. Furniture, wiring and cabins were gutted in the fire.

“Currently, we are gathering more information about the structure from the SII authorities. Our teams successfully rescued six people. But the bodies of the five others were recovered later, during cooling operations. We are still ascertaining the cause of the fire,” added Ranpise.

The building affected by the blaze did not have any production work on at the time of the incident, police and representatives of the SII informed.

Factory Manager of Serum Institute Vivek Pradhan confirmed that the facility/ building where fire broke out was not involved in Covishield production. “The affected facility is part of the SEZ, where expansion projects are going on. This plant has nothing to do with Covishield. The Covishield plant is at least a kilometre away from the building where the fire broke out. This particular building is under construction and hence, had a few labourers working there. Something may have happened during the ongoing work, which may come to the fore in the fire brigade’s investigation,” Pradhan added.

Meanwhile, Pune Mayor Murlidhar Mohol, who visited the spot, said, “I visited the site and saw that the building was under construction. I heard that there had been some welding and electrical work going on inside the building. However, there is no official confirmation on how the fire actually broke out. It is very sad that five people lost their lives in the incident.”

Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said that the fire began when welding was being done near inflammable material.

Hadapsar MLA Chetan Tupe said: “The ill-fated building is part of Special Economic Zone (SEZ) developed by the Serum Institute. No vaccine production was going on there.”

Soon after news of the fire broke, it was a major cause of concern for the entire nation, because the Serum Institute of India, Pune, has been in the news as it is currently involved in the production of Covishield. From President Ramnath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Congress member of Parliament Rahul Gandhi, among others took to Twitter to express concern over the loss of lives in the incident.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was anguished by the loss of lives. ‘‘Anguished by the loss of lives due to an unfortunate fire at the @SruminstIndia. In this sad hour, my thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. I pray that those injured recover at the earliest,’’ he said.

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