Hundreds of government records and files are believed to have been completely destroyed after a fire broke out on the 9th floor of the Shaheed-e-Millat Secretariat in Blue Area on Sunday evening.
The fire started in the record room of the Estate Office, which occupies the 9th floor of the 16-storey building that also houses sub-offices of the interior ministry. No injuries were reported in the incident.
Estate Office employees, who reached the building after hearing news of the fire, confirmed that the fire had affected the record room and an adjoining office.
They said files on houses and plots allotted to government employees were stored in the record room, which appeared to be completely gutted in the fire incident from outside the building.
Police officials said there was no preliminary evidence to indicate that the fire might be an act of sabotage. But a fact-finding mission has been constituted by the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) administration to investigate the incident.
The CDA fire and rescue staff said the fire was contained in one-half of the 9th floor. Rescue officials said the fire might have been caused by a short circuit but a further inquiry will ascertain the exact cause of the fire.
Flames appeared in the record room’s window, which opens on the Jinnah Avenue, around 4:45pm, according to eyewitnesses and police personnel posted on a picket near China Chowk.
Smoke from the fire quickly spread to the upper and lower floors of the building. Due to the Sunday holiday, the building was almost completely empty at the time of the fire incident.
“Only three people had entered the building on Sunday,” a police officer who had checked the entry register at the building’s main entrance, said. All three visitors were guards employed at the National Commission on Human Development (NCHD) on the 13th floor.
One of those guards, Jawad Gul, said he was at the NCHD office when smoke started streaming in through a false ceiling on the floor.
Gul said the smoke was intense and he only had time to switch off the circuit breaker for the floor and run for the staircase.
“There was a fire extinguisher on our floor, but the smoke was so thick that I could not locate any flames on the 12th and 13th floors,” he said. “It was getting difficult to breathe so I made a run for the ground floor.”
An alert was transmitted on police wireless soon after the fire was discovered and the Capital Development Authority fire brigade responded within minutes.
“Eight fire trucks, including fire tenders and a snorkel with a ladder that could reach up to the 9th floor, were dispatched to the building,” a CDA fire brigade officer said. “At least around 50 CDA rescue staff and firefighters took part in the operation.”
Estate Office employees, who requested anonymity, said from the looks of it, most of the records, stored in paper format in file cabinets, would have been burnt and the rest would have been affected by the water used to extinguish the fire.
“We will still be able to tell who a plot or house was allotted to, through back-up,” one estate officer said. “But the paper files contain important details of the record.”
CDA Municipal Administration (DMA) Director Hamza Shafqaat said the DMA will conduct its own inquiry based on the nature and extent of the fire.
Police were quick to dismiss allegations that the fire was purposely started to destroy important records.
“We are not ruling out sabotage outright but it is a holiday and none of the people who were in the building belonged to the place where the fire erupted, so it looks like the fire was an accident,” one senior police official, who visited the scene, said. “If someone had wanted to burn records, there were many other important offices in the building.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 3rd, 2014.