While Namanadan Ramaraj, his wife and three sons were sleeping in the early hours of Tuesday morning in his room on the fourth floor, he found that they were being engulfed by a cloud of smoke.
He got to know that his building was on fire and he and his family were trapped, with no way out.
“It was a raging fire that came from the bottom and the smoke just filled the room, I understood that I would not be able to go back down the stairs. I opened the window and started shouting at the people at the bottom to rescue us,”
said Namanadan who staged a daring rescue of his family from the fourth floor of the five-storey building which caught fire at the Yatinuwara Street in Kandy this week.
“I threw down the mattress we were sleeping on, thinking that I could jump on it with my children. The mattress got stuck on its way down, thereafter I threw down two-bed sheets and the people below told me, don’t be afraid, jump and we will catch you. They had spread the bed sheets at the bottom, and they were holding them up for us to jump into. I prayed to God and pushed my children out of the window.”
My children, wife and I are not hurt today, thanks to those people at the bottom who caught us. Their human kindness is stronger than a thousand fires, said Namanadan relating his story while receiving treatment at the Kandy Teaching Hospital.
As he threw down his children into the group of people below, not knowing whether they would catch them or not, his attempts were caught on camera, with the video becoming instantly popular across media and social media groups around the country.
Moving to Kandy
Namanadan, a jeweller by profession, is skilled at plating gold on jewellery but his most precious asset is his family. A resident of Bandarawela, he moved to Kandy for work and has been living there for the past year. They were living on the fourth floor of the five-storeyed building in which he was working in. Not preferring to stay away from his wife and children, he brought them over too. He had a plan to send his children to a Tamil medium school in Kandy and rent a house in the outskirts of Kandy to move into soon. During the last school holidays, they had visited Bandarawela and had returned to Kandy, just six hours prior to the fire.
“My two older children study in Bandarawela. So, my wife lives there with the children. I go home on the weekends, and stay there for two days and return to work on Monday. So my wife and I thought that if we could get the children into schools in Kandy, we could all stay together. Once the school holidays were announced, I went to the sons’ schools and got their leaving certificates and other documents. When we returned to Kandy from Bandarawela that day, it was around 1 am in the morning. We were exhausted, so we all fell asleep immediately. As the three wheeler I drove here had been just stopped outside the entrance, I woke up around 6.30 am to park it elsewhere.”
Having parked it, Namanadan returned to his room but on the way, he said he saw that someone had opened the door of the third-floor beauty parlour and was rummaging through it.
“I began to suspect whether a thief had broken in. I did not say anything, instead, I went upstairs and told my wife that someone was there at the beauty parlour downstairs. My wife wondered whether it was the husband of the owner. Either way, I phoned the building owner, he did not answer. Five minutes later, we heard some sounds from the floor below. Soon a fire came up, I did not know what to do. The room started to fill with smoke.”
His eldest son is eight years old, second six and the last is three-and-a-half-years-old. As their father started to pick them up to throw them out the window, the two older children started screaming. “They were asking me not to drop them on to the ground. When my kids shout like that, as their father how could I let them go? I placed all my trust in God and dropped each kid one by one. To be honest I feel that those who caught my children were manifestations of God in real life. I am a Tamil, but those below were Sinhalese and Muslims, at that moment I felt that we were all brethren.”
After he made sure the children were on the ground safe, he told his wife,
“you are too heavy, I will go out the window, and use the metal rod next to the window to get on to the next floor, and I will take you from there.” Unfortunately, however, as his wife started to climb out the window, her grip slipped and she started to fall, “I grabbed the iron rod in one hand and caught my wife with the other hand. If I had missed, my wife would be dead by now.”
His wife, Thangavel Radhika relating the story further said, “I prayed to God that my husband and children be kept safe. My husband said that we should send our children down first. I started shivering with fear. When my husband started picking them up to drop them down, the children started to cry, shouting ‘please don’t do it’. If he had hesitated at that moment, we would not have been alive today. Thereafter he climbed down the building on the other side, I put my legs over the window, and tried to get down from there. But all of a sudden, my hands slipped, and I started to fall, my husband grabbed my hand. My husband is like God to me, to him, there is no world without our family.”
Why were there no emergency exits?
Mohamed Safas, the nephew of the owner of the building speaking to the Daily News in the meantime explained that there were 10 rooms inside the building which have been rented out to various people. However, it was only Namanadan and his family who lived on the top floor.
“The Police are conducting investigations into the fire, to determine whether this was an act of arson or accidental. Once the Government Analyst’s report is out, we will get to know more,” he said.
The more serious flaw the fire highlighted was the lack of emergency exits in many of the buildings in Kandy. According to the law, all buildings, especially commercial buildings need to have emergency exits and building approvals have not been granted if they fail to meet these conditions and regulations.
However, General Secretary to the Organisation to Protect Public Property, Anura Kumara Gonawela noted that it was common knowledge that the building approval process is one of the most corrupt activities in the local government and many buildings which do not meet the standards do get approval in Kandy. “This is not the first building in Kandy to face this issue. People only realise the danger once incidents such as this take place,” he added.
Kandy Municipal Council Commissioner, Chandana Tennakoon in the meantime said, “This fire has taken place in commercial property. People cannot live in such buildings. There is a problem there. The other issue is that these buildings are very old. Due to a lack of land in the city and its commercial value, these buildings are built very close to each other.”
He explained that nowadays all floor plans in the central city area were approved by the Urban Development Authority(UDA), “The Municipal Council and the UDA do pay attention to whether buildings have emergency exits when they are being designed. But older buildings have this issue. What we can do now is to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. The certificate of conformity is only released once the officer ensures that the building is built according to the plan, and you need this certificate to apply for your electricity, water and utilities.”
On Wednesday (9), Government Analyst Roshan Fernando conducted investigations into the scene of the crime. Namanadan in the meantime was subjected to minor surgery on the very same day to remove some shards of glass that had embedded in the soles of his feet. He and his family are lucky to have escaped with minimum harm but as always, it was always a preventable accident. (Asela Kuruluwansa and Thilak Pushpakumara)