Laughter, Then Horror, as Flames Engulfed Upscale Mumbai Restaurants

The fire in Mumbai, India, on Friday destroyed two restaurants and left at least 14 people dead.

MUMBAI, India — Aksheeta Doshi Shroff and a few family members were relaxing at 1 Above, a rooftop restaurant in a trendy district of Mumbai, when a small fire broke out shortly after midnight on Friday.

In the first few moments, Ms. Shroff said, patrons at 1 Above did not seem panicked. Some, she said, laughed and took pictures of the flames. Music continued playing. She saw no attempt by staff to evacuate, and heard no alarms.

[Read: ‘There were no safety features’: Outrage follows New Delhi fire.]

But the fire turned lethal, and by the early morning, 14 people were dead at 1 Above and a neighboring restaurant, Mojo’s Bistro. Three people at 1 Above have been charged with culpable homicide, and several municipal officials were suspended for failing to enforce fire safety codes.

The fire quickly engulfed the rooftop, with flames spreading along cloth canopies that collapsed on people’s heads as alcohol bottles exploded. There were no sprinklers or fire extinguishers, Ms. Shroff and two other witnesses said, and no clearly marked escape route. She had to jump a glass barrier in the restaurant to make her way out.

Ms. Shroff, 30, ended up at King Edward Memorial Hospital with burn injuries.

“So many people have died in front of me,” said Ms. Shroff, who had to cut off 30 percent of her hair after pieces of the burning canopy and tarpaulin fell on her head.

She had watched emergency workers trying to revive young victims of the fire, she said: “Parents were crying, screaming. It was horrific.”

Fires and building collapses are common in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, especially in older buildings and lower-income neighborhoods. Corruption and lax oversight have allowed unregulated building projects to sprout across this cramped city, home to more than 18 million people.

But the two restaurants that burned on Friday were in Lower Parel, a former mill area now full of fashionable bars, bistros and new luxury high-rises. They were part of the Kamala Mills compound, a set of recently renovated former industrial buildings that, along with the neighboring Todi Mill, draw hordes of young professionals every night.

The roads are narrow, and land is unevenly divided among establishments, creating outdoor mazes and dead-end walkways.

Local news media have reported accusations of safety oversights by the owners of 1 Above, including illegally serving alcohol and hookah on a terrace, blocking exits and leaving potentially explosive gas cylinders on the rooftop.

The restaurant said in a statement that it had all the required fire safety measures in place, and staff received regular fire training. It denied having had gas cylinders on the rooftop.

Ahmad Usman Pathan, a senior police inspector in Mumbai, said three people who managed 1 Above had been named in criminal complaints. They were charged with crimes including culpable homicide, he said.

Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, the mayor of Mumbai, said by telephone that officials with the city’s governing body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, had also been suspended for failing to enforce safety rules and regulations.

Officials with the Mumbai Fire Brigade said that it was still unclear what had caused the fire. Witnesses gave three possible explanations: attributing the initial spark to a short circuit, to a fire show in which a bartender spat liquor into flames and to the ember from a burning coal on a hookah.

Sana Kabra, 23, who was at 1 Above, said she and her friends had been sitting near the table where the fire started. She said a friend had seen an ember from the bowl of a hookah shoot up into the air before igniting black cloth that shrouded large portions of the restaurant.

Some staff members darted for exits soon after, Ms. Kabra said, but one waiter told her to sit down.

“One guy was like, ‘Oh, not a big deal, nothing will happen, sit down,’ ” she said. “So, obviously, he didn’t understand the intensity of it.”

Ms. Kabra and her friends ignored his advice as the fire grew quickly. “The staff knew exactly where the exits were,” she added, “but they didn’t look like they were trained for any sort of fire.”

On the ground level, patrons with burns wandered into a nearby Starbucks, where a barista doused them with creamer. Outside, an explosion shook the ground, and a large crowd of people gathered to take videos and selfies with the blaze.

“We were really disappointed that there were so many people with cameras out,” Ms. Kabra said.

On Saturday, bulldozers directed by the local authorities demolished more than 300 illegal structures blocking roads around the city, including in Kamala Mills, where cabs and people smoking cigarettes outside clubs further congest the streets in the early morning.

Asked why it had taken so long for the structures to be demolished, an employee at Social, a nearby restaurant, who declined to give his name, scrunched up his face and laughed, saying it was bureaucracy.

By Saturday evening, many restaurants in the area lacked electricity, and employees shuffled around empty establishments serving rice and soupy lentils to firefighters, police officers and journalists. Sitting in the dark behind the building that caught on fire was Suraj Giri, 21, a security guard who helped patrons down a staircase to escape the blaze on Friday.

“There was such madness when people descended that I was afraid they were going to run me over,” he said. “One was falling, one didn’t have clothes, one had burns, one was missing a shoe.”

Despite reports that several exits had been obstructed or locked, forcing staff to break down doors, Mr. Giri said he thought at first that everyone had made it out alive.

Then one terrified group of relatives started pointing at messages on their phones from a family member who was trapped upstairs.

“They were begging the firefighters to take them back upstairs to find her,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to that woman.”

Firefighters eventually discovered a group of victims, mostly women, dead in a small bathroom enclosure. They had suffocated.

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