Student housing complex fire suspected to be electrical

-landlord denies claims of negligence

The remains of the Off Campus Lodge following Friday night’s fire. The apartment complex was home to some 40 local and international students of nearby tertiary institutions. (Photo by Keno George)

The fire that gutted the Cummings Lodge, East Coast Demerara apartment complex on Friday night is suspected to have been electrical, says Operations Manager of the Guyana Fire Service (GFS) Compton Sparman.

Sparman, in an invited comment yesterday, told Stabroek News that though investigations are underway, preliminary findings have pointed to the fire being of an electrical nature.

Further, Sparman, in response to questions raised about the presence of fire prevention mechanisms in the apartment building, reiterated the need for fire prevention mechanisms being incorporated into building designs.

“I always tell people prevention is better than cure; based on what we have seen thus far, there was no evidence to show that fire prevention mechanisms were in place,” he said.

Located at Third Street, Cummings Lodge, the two-storey “Off Campus Lodge” housed approximately 40 local and international students from the University of Guyana (UG), the Rajiv Gandhi Medical School, the Cyril Potter College of Education and young working adults in its 25 single and double-room apartments.

Stabroek News was able to speak with several tenants who had returned to what was left of the apartment building yesterday to assess the extent of the damage caused by the fire.

One such tenant was Asif Baksh, who had been living in the building for the past year and had also happened to be among those who helped raise an alarm after observing smoke emanating from the apartment where the fire allegedly began. “I see smoke coming out from Room Two and I alert everybody and we try breaking the door.

When we opened the door, we saw thick black smoke rushing and the wires start sparking; there were flames at the back and we tried to out it, but there were live wires all over the place and we couldn’t do anything about it,” he related.

He went on to say that though the GFS was called in almost immediately, it took the firefighters a while before they actually started working as they reportedly had issues sourcing water to fight the fire.

Baksh, originally from the Essequibo Coast, has estimated his personal loss to be in the area of $500,000, inclusive of personal documents and household items he had furnished the apartment with.

Asked if there were any fire prevention mechanisms in place prior to the fire, Baksh said, “None; we have no fire point, no fire extinguishers, no water sprinklers, no fire escape, nothing.”

It was at that point in time another tenant interjected to highlight what he said was the negligible attitude of the landlord, Tarachand Balgobin.

According to the tenant, who did not give his name, several complaints were made to Balgobin by the tenant who occupied the apartment where the fire started with regards to electrical issues, however, he said it seemed as though those complaints fell on deaf ears as the issue was never addressed.

“The boy room was giving electrical problems with an electrical socket; it kept burning out and the wire kept getting hot, hot, hot all the time. The boy made complaints over a year now but nothing was ever done about it…I sure is that bun out last night and that’s what mek all this happen… the landlord negligence mek all ah we deh how we deh now,” he related. Balgobin denied the claims yesterday.

According to the tenants, they are now left to wonder if they will be compensated for their losses as rumors have been going around that the building was not insured at the time of the fire.

“He hasn’t given us any satisfaction, he hasn’t told us anything.  Now, this morning, he come saying he ain’ got insurance for the place… but I don’t know. He treating we like is chicken went in here living,” one tenant said.

“If he had fixed the problem, this would never have happen. When you ask this man to do something, he taking long, long, long; I had to get a lock for me door and I had to wait four years before I get a lock on my door so you could just imagine the type of landlord he is,” another tenant related.

Nonetheless, Baksh contended that though it will be hard to start over, he is thankful that no lives were lost as a result of the fire.

‘Misuse of circuitry’

Balgobin, on the other hand, when contacted by Stabroek News, expressed the belief that the building could have been saved had it not been for a slow response time from the Guyana Power and Light (GPL) when it was called upon to cut off the flow of electricity to the building.

The slow response time by GPL, he said, along with the GFS’ challenges in sourcing water prevented the firefighters from acting immediately to extinguish the blaze.

“I got news yesterday after the fire started and when I arrived on the scene, the fire service had already arrived and the building was engulfed.

They tried pumping water from the trench but that didn’t work but if GPL had been faster in arriving to turn off the power maybe they would have had a chance of saving the building,” the man said. “We had several thousand gallons of water in water reserves at the back and several underwater reserves that could have been used; so it’s not like they didn’t have water available,” he added.

Commenting on the speculation that the fire was of electrical origin, Balgobin said though he cannot say for sure what could have caused the fire, it is possible that the fire may have been as a result of the “misuse of the apartment’s circuitry.”

“I don’t know if it was a case were the circuitry was misused but these rooms were all independently wired. There are two points and three bulbs in each room and I can’t say if anyone expanded the circuitry to increase multiple use of a point,” he told Stabroek News.

Additionally, he wished to note that though claims have been of negligence on his part as landlord in not addressing electrical issues in the said apartment, no complaints were received by him or anyone else in management.

“There have been wild accusations made by the person who occupied the room in which the fire started where he claims that reports were made in the past about electrical issues in his apartment but that is not true. We are there every day and have not received any complaints from him; not verbally, not written and this is despite us asking our tenants if they have any problems,” Balgobin asserted.

Meanwhile, when asked about the implementation of fire prevention mechanisms in the building prior to the fire, the man said, “There’s no need for fire escapes, no one got hurt, they all got out safely; these are not the issues.”

Insurance

And in response to questions regarding possibly compensating tenants, Balgobin said he was not sure why the tenants would be asking for such since the apartments were furnished prior to their occupancy.

“I don’t know what they mean by compensation; some of them had bits and pieces of things but I provided the furniture for those apartments,” he said, before noting that assistance in the form of documents will be given to those desirous of making claims for replacement of passports and other similar claims.

According to Balgobin, the loss of the building has set him back by an estimated $50M. He said his family is still in the process of determining whether the building was insured at the time of the blaze as the possibility exists that the policy may have expired sometime last year.

“We are looking into things right now. On Monday, we will be going to the insurance company to sort that out and see what’s going on,” he said.

The fire began sometime around 8.30pm and burned into the wee hours of Saturday morning as firefighters made continuous efforts to source water to completely put out the flames.

Although there were three fire tenders at the scene as well as support from the prison service, the inability to properly source water continually hampered the efforts of the firefighters to put out the fire.

The firefighters made attempts to source water from a nearby canal but this proved futile as it was overtaken by vegetation and silt.

There are no fire hydrants in the area. However, as the flames subsided, persons from another apartment building were seen throwing water on the burning debris.

When the fire started, some of the occupants were not at home and only learned of the tragedy through phone calls from friends.

One man had hoped his apartment could have been saved but his hopes died after the flames rekindled for a second time and reached his apartment. He stated he did not get to save any item as well.

Some occupants managed to save their important documents and some escaped with their suitcases.

As flames consumed the building, occupants helplessly looked on. Some were comforted while others tried to be brave. While friends offered some a place to rest their heads for the night, many were uncertain where they would go.

Throughout the fire, explosions were heard from gas bottles that were in the apartments. At the scene, hundreds gathered and expressed disappointment that the fire service could not have put out the fire fast enough.

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