Tuesday, May 1, 2001,
Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

Army begins probe into depot fire
Many heads may roll
Varinder Walia and Ravi Bhushan Puri
Tribune News Service

Pathankot, April 30
Many heads may roll after a probe into the devastating fire which broke out in the country’s strategically located ammunition depot in Mamoon cantonment here late last evening in which ammunition worth crores of rupees was destroyed due to the alleged negligence of the officials concerned.

The Army authorities have ordered a court of inquiry into the fire, an Army spokesman said.

The court of inquiry has started its work in the affected pit here.

The spokesman declined to give any further details, saying that these would be announced only after the completion of the inquiry.

He said that 427 metric tonnes of ammunition, mainly of 122 mm of tank and 30 mm anti-aircraft shells, were destroyed in the fire suspected to have been caused by spontaneous combustion triggered by high day temperatures.

Sources in the ammunition depot said that the loss was comparatively less as the ammunition had been stored in 60 segregated pits.

Incidentally, the fire broke out exactly after one year of the Bharatpur incident in which over 10,000 tonnes of ammunition worth Rs 376 crore went up in smoke. The fire had devastated highly sophisticated tank and long-range artillery ammunition for Bofors and other high calibre field guns on April 29 last year in the outskirts of Bharatpur township in Rajasthan which forms part of the Southern Command Reserve and that of Army headquarters. However, the high level Army probe, ordered by the Defence Ministry into the Bharatpur fire has yet to be made public despite lapse of one year.

Even as the Mamoon fire continues to smoulder in the depot with sporadic blasts till this afternoon, the black Sunday still haunts the population of this sensitive border town and its surrounding areas. Most of the residents and families of the Army personnel who had fled to safer places have started returning.

As the news of the fire spread like wildfire, more than 80 per cent population shifted to the adjoining towns, including Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, apprehending more blasts. The panic was so intense that patients in various hospitals of the town also scampered for safety unmindful of their serious illness.

The civil and military administration was found unequal to the panicky situation. Elderly persons and handicapped had to be taken to the adjoining towns on improvised stretchers.

The residents living close to the ammunition depot lament that they are virtually living on a live volcano which could erupt anytime. They had made various representations, to the Army authorities as well as the civil administration to shift the depot away from the township, but in vain.

When the ammunition depot was established in the sixties it was like a jungle. But with the uncontrolled urbanisation, a lot of houses have mushroomed in the vicinity of the depot.

Ironically, a lot of constructions took place even after the displaying of ‘warning notice’ by the Army, prohibiting people against carrying out any construction within 1,000 metres of the cantonment area. The notice was put up on January 2, 1981, on the orders of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr Krishan Mehta, husband of Sushma Mehta, Sarpanch of Mamoon alleged that more than two lakh people had been residing in the vicinity of the cantonment. He said the rates of property had come down immediately after the breaking of fire.

Narrating his nightmarish experience, Mr Mehta recalled that children, women and even elderly persons were seen crying, ‘bachao bachao’ after hearing the blasts. He claimed that two blasts took place after 9 a.m. today.

The residents said that they were facing constant fear to their lives as the ammunition depot apart, an air force station and oil dumps were also situated in the town. Since the town has a common border with trouble-torn Jammu & Kashmir, miscreants could strike any time, thereby endangering their lives.

Though the Army officials have refused to come on record for the cause of the fire, the district administration does not rule out the probability of sabotage. Sources close to the Army point out that the ammunition which caught the fire was stacked in the most “unscientific” manner. Some insiders even alleged that a part of the ammunition was kept in the open plinth.

Ms Vibhu Raj SP, City, alleged that the Army officers were not forthcoming with any comment. Mr Sukhdev Singh who has joined as district police chief recently, feigned ignorance about the cause of the fire.

The ammunition depot comes under the Northern Command with headquarters at Udhampur. This depot is responsible for meeting the needs of Indian troops based in the valley.

The intensity of the fire could be seen in the far-flung areas of the town. Tremors were felt in the 5-km radius.

Thakur Bachiter Singh, Sarpanch of the adjoining Chhatwal village said that for a moment he felt that there was a war with the enemy. The sky fell on the entire population who were seen fleeing, here, there and everywhere. The entire school building of the KLM International, a boarding school, was got vacated within minutes of the breaking of the fire. The school management took the inmates to Jugial, near the site of Ranjit Sagar dam.

Some residents alleged that the splinters of the explosions were collected by the army from the nearby areas. Earlier, the Army kept the civil administration in the dark about the incident. However, when the flames were seen upto 300 metres high it had to inform the administration about the incident.



Ammunition worth 15 cr destroyed
M.L. Kak
Tribune News Service

Jammu, April 30
Ammunition worth over Rs 15 crore has been destroyed in the blaze that engulfed the Army ammunition depot in Pathankot cantonment late last evening.

Defence Ministry sources said that preliminary estimates indicate loss of ammunition, including that for long-range guns and 125 MM guns, worth over Rs 15 crore.

The Army authorities said that the fire was the result of a “spontaneous combustion” which had resulted in the massive loss. It took more than four hours for the Army and civil fire tenders to control the flames which appeared kissing the sky, leading to panic in areas around the cantonment.

More than 1,000 civilians fled to safer places. While most of them had returned to their houses late in the night, others spent the time in the open.

The Army immediately sealed the area and prevented people, including newsmen, from entering into the ammunition depot.

Though the flames have been extinguished, the debris in yet to be removed because the soldiers fear that there may be more blasts.


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