There is a “stalemate” between Gafoors and its insurance underwriters over how to proceed on a building that was damaged in the massive fire at the company’s Houston Complex last month but some reconstruction has started.
In an exclusive interview, Executive Chairman Sattaur Gafoor told Stabroek News on Monday that “the underwriters’ surveyors are of the opinion that the building that still stands can be repaired.”
He said though, “Our civil engineers [Walter Willis and Raymond Latchmansingh] feel otherwise and that is where we are stuck at the moment. We would like if they [underwriters] can come to a compromise; they themselves see that it would be useless to try to repair a building that has suffered so much heat.”
With no final decision as to how they should proceed with respect to that building, he told the local and overseas underwriters “to give me an undertaking that I can repair the building; those parts that you asked me to repair and give me a letter stating that if anything were to happen, you are responsible. That has brought a stalemate and that’s where we are.”
He said too, “They are reluctant to do that and have returned to Barbados and then they would make a decision.” He is still communicating with his agent, Bish Panday, of P & P Insurance Brokers.
The businessman pointed out that “if they were to go by the conditions or the procedures outlined in the event of a fire with a steel building, they would know what happens.”
One of the conditions states that “once the heat goes above 1000 degrees centigrade then the building must be condemned.”
Further, he said, “The building suffered severe damage to the extent where the steel is twisted and, as can be seen, the building is leaning to the south. Yet the underwriters feel that parts of the building can be saved.”
He said there were no fire sprinklers set up in the building but “we did have fire extinguishers in every area and buckets with sand. We are now speaking to the fire department to provide some help with installing the fire sprinklers” on the new structures.
The company has also started the construction of a steel building, at the dimension of 400 ft by 180 ft, which would be higher and larger than what was destroyed and could be a “continuation” of the building that now houses the store and offices. The steel columns and beams were ordered the day after the fire.
The contractors have started to put up the columns from Monday and Gafoor is hopeful that it would be completed by the end of July.
The insurance company has not given “permission to clean the whole area but we are trying to recover whatever we can,” he said.
After the fire, some of Gafoor’s employees were sent to two locations, while some remained at Houston. Even though the store is currently operating at less than 60% of its capacity, Gafoor was proud that 500 of the workers are already back at the main store.
He said too that “we are working assiduously to see what can be done,” in terms of being in full operation.
The accounts department is in the upper flat and the store and offices are operating on the ground floor. According to him, the cleaning up started from the day after the fire.
He told this newspaper, “We had nothing; this building was under construction. We had no light, no air-conditioning unit…” and added that the day after the fire, “we started to put things in place.”
He was happy with the efforts of the “good, supporting staff,” some of whom were asked to work late. He said “over 100 people were working on two floors and contractors were kind enough to come in and build all the racks.”
To get the office running again, he had to purchase items, including over 200 computers, over 300 desks and chairs.
The employees were thankful to their boss for his kindness in looking into their interest and not leaving them without a job.
According to one staff member, “Mr. Gafoor … can go home and don’t even have to rebuild this place but he is doing it so that we can have a living.”
Underwriters have said that this fire has been one of the largest that they have dealt with and the insurance payout is expected to amount to billions.
Gafoor has estimated his losses to be billions of dollars, with the damage to the building alone projected at some $12 billion, while the cost of the merchandise destroyed still has to be added to that.
He said they have had to answer a lot of questions and provide records for the value of the stocks up to the time of the fire to the insurance company.
“We have been able to provide stocks up to the date prior to the fire and we had some difficulties to get up records for the day of the fire but fortunately they [underwriters] have accepted a pro-rata basis for sales made and valuation of stocks around the same time. So by and large I think we are about 80% where the stocks are concerned,” Gafoor told this newspaper.
Recalling May 9, the day of the fire, Gafoor said that around 4 pm an employee informed him about it and told him that he should exit the building immediately.
He then asked his employees from his floor to exit as well and when he went down he saw smoke coming from bond number three.
He suggested that the firefighters should concentrate their efforts on two other buildings but noted that there were some hiccups with the fire tenders, where one could not start and they there was a problem with the hose. He nevertheless thinks that they did a good job.
Gafoor said that while they “were trying to get their things together the fire was spreading” to the remaining bonds. In the end, 60% of the complex was destroyed, according to Fire Chief Marlon Gentle.
The businessman has since compensated six firefighters who were injured during the blaze. He had also held a function at the Pegasus Hotel where he acknowledged and paid everyone, including the employees as well as members of the public that assisted immediately after the fire.
The company’s Finance Director Michael Daniels handed over cheques to firemen Roylon Greene, Neville Cumberbatch, Stephan Patterson, Dwayne Waldron, Eon Halley and Kerron Moore at a simple ceremony.
According to Daniels, the cheques are meant to be a sign of appreciation on behalf of the company for the work the firemen did in helping to save the building from the fire.