Georgetown- A City Under Fire

Intense probe of city inferno on - police

April 11th. 2001

As smoke continued to billow from the ruins on Regent and Robb streets, owners of the businesses torched in the raging inferno on Monday afternoon were yesterday tallying their losses and contemplating their future.
The entire square between Camp and Wellington streets on Regent and Robb streets lay under a haze of grey smoke as the rubble of destroyed buildings continued to ignite at intervals.


City of desolation: The ruins of Kissoon's Furniture City and other surrounding businesses as pictured from Camp Street following Monday afternoon's blaze which consumed almost an entire city block leaving several hundred million dollars in damage. (Ken Moore photo)


Police Public Relation Officer, Inspector Smith, yesterday said that the police and the Guyana Fire Service had mounted an intense investigation into Monday night's fire. Stabroek News was unable to get any information from the fire service. Inspector Smith said that the two services would have to comb the entire area in search of clues to help determine the fire's origins. However, they would have to wait until the smouldering rubble was completely out.
One business on Robb Street, Tau-Ams Associates, which was spared substantial damage during the actual blaze, finally succumbed yesterday morning as the heat and the fire from behind the building managed to engulf the remaining portion.

The fire, which reports suggested was set by arsonists, ripped through the heart of the city on Monday afternoon consuming many businesses in its path, leaving several hundred million dollars in damage and many without jobs.
The entire square was desolate yesterday and fire-fighters could still be seen dousing the smouldering emblers.
There were occasional loud crashing noises as items believed to be of a combustible nature, ignited.
Workmen from the Guyana Power and Light Inc were engaged in regularising the power situation in the immediate vicinity. Power, which had been cut from the area for almost 24 hours, was returned at around 5:00 pm yesterday.
Insurance assessors were also seen on the scene of the fire and appeared to be making on-the-spot evaluations and assessments.


Checking the damage: Workers from the Guyana Power and Light Inc examine the wiring on Regent Street following Monday night's fire. Firefighters were still dousing smouldering embers yesterday morning. (Ken Moore photo)


Staff from many of the establishments, overwhelmed by the events, milled around at the intersections many perhaps wondering what to do.


Officials from the National Bank of Industry and Commerce (NBIC), could be seen busy securing their Camp and Regent streets branch as security personnel hired by that entity were reinforcing the perimeter.
Curious onlookers, although kept at reasonable distances by police barricades, stopped to gaze at the effect of the rampaging flames, which consumed almost three-quarters of a city block. Police maintained a tight check on traffic near the immediate area.


The fire destroyed the Kissoon's Furniture City - which also housed Bossie's International and RJ's Pharmacy - Archie's Electrical, Garden Restaurant and Tau Ams all of which were located on Robb Street. On Regent Street the fire destroyed Global Enterprises, Sookraj & Sons, which housed the office of Madagabar Resort, Anand's Discount Store, Lotus Restaurant, Kirpalani's and the Guyana Import & Export (GIMPEX) building.

This building housed the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers Union (GAWU), the Guyana's Rice Producers Association (GRPA), Alicia's Wholesale & Retail Store, Daswaney's General store and Shamdas Kirpalani store. A signboard still hanging on the GIMPEX building showed that it had also housed Hall's Piano Warehouse and Colgrain Dental Laboratory.
And as the fire burned on Monday evening, bandits were busy making hay in nearby vulnerable areas.
One such establishment, Royal Jewel House on the southern half of Regent Street had its rear door broached and a quantity of silver jewellery and other items with the estimated value of $3 million carted off.


Speaking with Stabroek News yesterday, proprietor of the 60-year-old establishment, Mohamed Azeez stated that the shop was closed at about 5:15 pm on Monday when he and his wife finally left the premises. A guard who was normally stationed at the premises did not turn up for duty, probably due to action by the police in restraining crowds from encroaching on the fire scene, he said.


Heat damage: An employee from the Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry on Regent Street scraping up some of the tiles that fell off of a section of an outer wall. The heat from the conflagration which raged across the street on Monday evening caused the tiles to drop off. (Ken Moore photo)

It was his belief that the bandits began working on the rear door between 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm when guards at the nearby Guyana Bank for Trade and Industry (GBTI) were alerted to noises on the premises and contacted them.
He showed this newspaper the extent to which the thieves went to gain access to the building. Under the cover of the noise from the bank's generator, which was on because of disruptions in the power supply to neighbourhood, they hammered the wooden door and cut through a wrought-iron grill, before gaining entry.


Azeez said that this sort of thing made his heart bleed, since he had always tried to live in peace and harmony with all persons. He was contemplating his future, but stated that that would depend on the situation in the country. He emphasized the need for adequate security and peace in the nation irrespective of who was in power.
Azeez lamented that he had to pay a two per cent advance or turnover tax, which was required up front irrespective of whether the company made a profit. In addition he had some 14 persons employed at his establishment.


This newspaper learned that police were on the scene earlier and had taken a child found on the premises into custody. The child, it was stated, had said that two men had been on the premises.
An eyewitness had told this newspaper on Monday afternoon that he happened to be driving past Kissoon's when he saw two men start the fire. According to the man, he saw two men break the showcase with a brick after which they threw burning objects into the section of the store, which had some wicker chairs. It has been established via various sources, that the fire began at this particular store moving west to other businesses on Robb and Regent streets.


President of GAWU, Komal Chand, during a press conference said the tactics of PNC REFORM leader Desmond Hoyte, the party Chairman, Robert Corbin and national candidate Jerome Khan had put the lives of many at risk.
Chand, who kept his press briefing in front of the gutted building, which once housed the GAWU office on Regent Street, said that the entire complex was consumed "by the fiery flames of hatred."


Point of entry: Owner of Royal Jewel House, Mohamed Azeez, points to the broken back door at the rear of his establishment through which bandits entered and robbed his premises, making off with valuables. Ken Moore photo)

Finding it difficult to speak because of the intensity of the smoke from the still burning buildings, Chand told reporters that "a great portion of our institutional memory has been erased." He noted that in a matter of minutes their vital records including financial statements and historical documents were consumed. "Our members' welfare the status and well-being of thousands of workers in the sugar, forestry, manufacturing and clerical sectors have been put at severe risk - if only temporarily," the union's president said.


The union's head was also disturbed over that fact that there had been no immediate rebuke from the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) and asked when would the umbrella organisation come out against the politically organised assault against the workers' welfare. He said that his union, believed that the talk of dialogue and negotiation coming from the main opposition party was but "empty rhetoric meant to play for time".
Chand appealed to what he described as "the other besieged section of the peaceful population, the silent majority", and its thousands of members to harbour no thoughts of retaliation. He advised that this should be left up to the security services who, by large, were still offering service and protection.


Chand said that his union had faced more daunting battles before and prevailed and would come out on top of this one. He said that peace and tranquility must be allowed to prevail.
General Secretary of RPA, Dharamkumar Seeraj was yesterday seen gazing listlessly at the gutted building that once housed his association's office.
Speaking to Stabroek News, Seeraj said "we don't have an office... no base."
A distraught Seeraj said the full impact of the damage was now registering as he tried to put his thoughts "together".


Noting that the association lost a quantity or records, Seeraj said that there were back up records in other areas and pointed out that the strength of the network was located in the rice growing areas.
He estimated that the association has lost some $26 million in the fire.
Seeraj lamented that the building was recently rehabilitated and was computerised, "but it is all gone now". According to Seeraj nine persons were employed at the head office and they were now unemployed even though it might be temporary.
The general secretary said that the rice association had made several strides in paving a brighter path for rice farmers.


"We were moving on so smoothly, so sweetly. Everyone who looked at our project implementation was very impressed," Seeraj said.
And a statement from the association said that RPA was in the process of identifying a temporary office so that it could continue to represent the interests of rice farmers.
Owner of R. Sookraj & Sons on Regent Street, Ramdat Sookraj, said that some 30 persons were now unemployed as a result of the destruction of his business which had been at its present location since 1970.
The building also housed a garment factory and a cambio.


Stabroek News caught up with the shaken man yesterday morning in front of what was once his thriving business and he said that he has lost hundreds of million of dollars.


"My business is very, very under insured," Sookraj lamented.
Questioned on how he learnt about the fire, Sookraj said that a "trader" ran to his Bel Air home and told him there was fire down town. But upon arrival he stood helplessly and watched as the flames made light work of his store as it tore through the block.
He said the firemen did the best they could but they came late after the fire had already eaten out the whole of Kissoon's Furniture City.


"All my living was under this building," the man lamented.
Sookraj blamed the ruling PPP/Civic as well as the PNC/R for yesterday's fire.
"They don't concern about the business people welfare, they concern about their own personal welfare on how to get power [and] remain in power," Sookraj said.


He said that politicians were only concerned about asking the business community for donations. He said that he would personally see that all business people came together and decide that they wanted no dealings with any politicians.


The rebuilding of Sookraj's store depends on what the insurance company decides.
Over at Global Enterprise, Manager Rita Budhram said that she could not estimate the losses. She said that the building along with the business belonged to her brother, Kumar Singh, who lived overseas.


Although the building was insured Budhram was still sceptical about what the decision of the Hand in Hand Insurance Company would be. She said she was on her way to classes when she learnt that the Kissoon building was on fire and as such decided to check the business as it was close to Kissoon's.


According to her when she arrived the building was okay but she knew it was in danger of being burnt so she asked the firemen to break open the store door, since she did not have the keys, and soak the back of the building with water, but no one paid attention to her. The woman said she went home and returned and attempted to remove some of the items in the building but the policemen on duty prevented her from doing so. As a result she stood helplessly and watched her brother's business go up in flames.


The woman said that if the fire was politically orchestrated then it was "very wrong." She noted that she was of the Jehovah's Witness faith and took no part in politics. "It is not fair because we have nothing against anyone," the woman said.
Earlier, the owner of the Lotus Chinese Restaurant showed Stabroek News the rear of his three-storey building located next to Bhena's Footwear which suffered fire damage.


Seven members of a family who occupied the second and third floors had all their belongings destroyed.
The restaurant on the ground floor was waterlogged and exhibited signs of fire damage. A storage area at the rear of the premises was in ruins as drink bottles and propane tanks were said to have exploded.
The man was unable to quantify his losses.


Posted April 10th. 2001 Staborek News & Guyana Chronicle
Fire reportedly set by arsonists ripped through the heart of the city consuming many businesses and leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and many without jobs. The fire in the late afternoon followed a tense day in the city during which police clashed with protesters outside of the Office of the President.

Later in the afternoon, a woman was shot dead in Robb Street in the vicinity of the PPP/Civic's Headquarters after a crowd had gathered there and the police say they are investigating this incident

A stiff north-easterly breeze aided the fire on its destructive path as it quickly ignited surrounding premises on Robb Street including Archie's Electrical, and Garden Chinese Restaurant. The latter building also houses Tau-Am's Associates Ltd at the bottom which suffered damage at the back. Four dogs belonging to the owner of Archie's were also burnt to death. This businessman lived above the store with his family.

On Regent Street, several stores were destroyed by the rampaging fire including Global Enterprises, Sooksons Garment Factory which housed the office of the Madagabar Resort, a cambio and factory; Anand's Discount Store, Lotus Restaurant, Kirpalani's, and the Guyana Import & Export (GIMPEX) building, which housed several offices including that of the Guyana Agricultural & General Workers Union (GAWU), the Guyana Rice Producers Association, Alicia's Wholesale & Retail Store and Daswaney's. The fire also threatened the National Bank of Industry and Commerce branch at the corner of Camp and Regent streets and nearby Bhena's Footwear on its right.

Manager, Corporate Operations of the bank, Ray Ramlall, and the owner of Bhena's, Glen Lall, mounted the roof of the bank to help fight the fire probably saving the two buildings - which are made of concrete - from further damage. Firemen who arrived on the scene some twenty minutes after the start of the blaze, began training their hoses at the Camp Street end of the burning Kissoon's building as the flames spread westwards. Low water pressure coupled with inadequate equipment including broken hoses slowed the work of the fire brigade which valiantly attempted to quell the raging flames which were by now threatening the Regent Street stores. Firemen who by now were on the scene in full force, quickly attempted to confront the fire from several fronts including Regent and Robb streets. However, one fireman was injured when a hose broke loose and the nozzle hit him on the eye on Regent Street. He was treated at the Georgetown Hospital and sent away.

Several residents on Robb Street as a precautionary measure, removed their belongings to the safety of the main road where they remained for several hours. As night fell firemen continued to battle the blaze. Police ranks set up barricades at several intersections leading to the central point of the fire. Sporadic gunshot fire was also used to quell an unruly crowd on Wellington Street who it was said attempted to set fire to the nearby Strand cinema. Crowd control, however, was fairly good at Camp and Church streets, Robb and Alexander and at Charlotte and Camp Streets. The cause of the fire is still under investigation but Stabroek News was told by an eyewitness that the fire was started by two young men. It was learnt that the two men broke the showcase of the Kissoon's store and threw burning barrels into a section which had some wicker chairs.

This was just about half an hour after the store was closed for the day. As the fire burnt through the Kissoon's building police officers along with public-spirited citizens were seen breaking windows of vehicles parked on Regent Street in an effort to move them out of danger's way. And even as the fire raged and besieged more buildings so did a large crowd on Robb Street which was seen racing down the thoroughfare armed with pieces of woods and other items shouting "more fire."

For about ten minutes the crowd was in total control as the few police officers present were unable to restore order. When those officers received back up help from the Target Special Squad shots were fired and the crowd dispersed and regrouped in several parts of the city. Some persons in the crowd dashed to an empty lot adjacent to Freedom House but were met with shots fired from the building. The shots were apparently fired by someone standing on a landing at the back of Freedom House. Upon hearing the gunshots, surprised policemen looked up and began gesticulating at the persons on the landing who beat a hasty retreat when attention was drawn to them.

Hemraj Kissoon, Managing Director of Kissoon's Furniture City, last night said he did not know how the fire originated and he was not in a position to quantify his losses. He also could not say how much the building was insured for. Just last year the Kissoon Group of Companies suffered great losses after a fire destroyed the Park Hotel on Main Street. Komal Chand, President of GAWU last evening said he is not certain whether the fire which razed the GIMPEX building which houses his union's office originated from the Kissoon's building.

Chand said that while he would not be able to quantify the union's loss at this point in time, it has lost all of its computers, invaluable documents for its credit union and the union as well as its collective bargaining agreements.

He said a lot of historical documents and photographs about the union's history and relationships have been destroyed. Describing the loss as very "upsetting", Chand said 40 persons from the union headquarters would be dislocated as a result of this fire and he is not sure where the union will function from today. He was disgusted at the method of protest employed in the city yesterday which he said would result in losses to the economy.

Robb and Regent streets fire


START:- the popular Kissoon's furniture store on Camp Street from where the fire started (Quacy Sampson photo).


An inferno: Fire raging through the Kissoon's Furniture City complex which housed Bossie's International clothing store and RJ Pharmacy during yesterday's city blaze which destroyed several stores including a home and offices of the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers Union. (Ken Moore photo)


Unattended: The fire eating its way through the ground floor of Kissoon's Furniture City yesterday before the Fire Service arrived. (Lawrence Fanfair photo)


Crumbling: This Aubrey Crawford photograph shows the disintegration of a part of Kissoon's Furniture City last evening.


Getting it out of the way: Public-spirited citizens assist in removing a vehicle from in front of Archie's Electrical Store before that building, located on Robb Street, was destroyed by fire yesterday. The fire was started at Kissoon's Furniture City by arsonists and spread along Regent and Robb streets. (Aubrey Crawford photo)


Taking no chances: Residents of Robb Street, afraid that their home might burn in yesterday's inferno, took no chances and quickly removed their household items. (Lawrence Fanfair photo)


Consumed: The fire eats through a third building on Regent Street, Kirpalani's store. Shutters were in place to prevent looting but fire claimed this store and those next to it. (Ken Moore photo)


Anguished: The owners of Kirpalani's Store on Regent Street gazing helplessly as their store went up in flames last evening. (Lawrence Fanfair photo)


For safe-keeping: Employees of the National Bank of Industry and Commerce branch at the corner of Camp and Regent streets, removing the computer data base from the bank as the building was threatened by fire. The employees also assisted in preventing the fire, which started at Kissoon's Furniture City and spread to many other buildings, from affecting the bank. (Lawrence Fanfair photo)


Hard at work: Fire-fighters hard at work on Regent Street during the fire last evening. Fire Chief Prince Dickenson is at right. (Ken Moore photo)


Crowd control: Members of the Guyana Police Force keeping the crowd at bay on Regent Street during the fire. (Lawrence Fanfair photo)


Probing: Fire-fighters going through the burnt records at the Queenstown Community High School. A bookcase was burnt in this suspected arson. (Aubrey Crawford photo)


Public-spirited individuals under the watchful eyes of members of the police Target squad clear rubble and extinguish a fire on Wellington Street yesterday after an angry mob had blocked the area and lit a fire close to the Strand cinema. (Aubrey Crawford photo)

 


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