NEW DELHI — At least 43 people were killed Sunday morning when a major fire broke out in a cramped, commercial neighborhood in New Delhi, officials said.
The blaze occurred around 5:30 a.m. in a multistory building used for manufacturing paper products and women’s 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.
“This is the second biggest fire in Delhi’s history,” he said.
The three-story building in the Anaj Mandi neighborhood of northeastern New Delhi was packed with sleeping laborers when the fire broke out. The area is full of dilapidated buildings shot through with small, dimly lit alleyways.
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 others were being treated for injuries.
“My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on Twitter, calling the blaze “extremely horrific” and extending “all possible assistance at the site.”
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 cause is not known but it could well be a short circuit.”
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 incident.
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 fire broke out in a hotel.
Sunday’s fire is the second biggest in New Delhi’s recent history. In June 1997, a fire killed 59 people at Uphaar Cinema, located in one of the city’s most upscale areas.
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.