Fire and ice: Remembering the big fire at Raman House in Sainik School Imphal

Squadron leader Vidula Abhyankar (Retd) *

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I have tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire
-Robert Frost

25 February 2023 was like any other day for me in Sainik School Imphal. As a lady working from home, I had finished my online coaching classes for SSB aspirants and was quietly sipping my cup of coffee when my maid suddenly drew my attention to a big ball of fumes rising in the sky from the direction of Cadets’ Mess.

Most of the locals of Imphal valley are aware that Sainik School, being a residential regimental school houses nearly 550 young cadets and has a big dining hall known as Cadets’ Mess to accommodate their dining arrangements. February being the month of Board exams for Class Xth and Class XIIth, I joked by saying that the Mess Manager was cooking something special to help the cadets overcome their exam Anxiety.

But the ball refused to subsume and all of us became worried. Within no time, we found the whole school running towards the ball of fumes and still it did not strike me that anything as ominous as a big FIRE OUTBREAK had started.It was only when one of the walkie-talkie at the Main Gate came to life with frantic calls of asking every employee to run towards Raman House that I realized something had gone bad.

Being an Air warrior and an avid reader of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ my first reaction (when there is a fire in the east, there can be an enemy attack in the west) was to ensure the safety of all inside the campus. That prompted me to close the Main entry gate and run towards the site of the Fire outbreak. On reaching closer to the ball of fumes, I realized its origin was inside the oldest building housing the cadets: the Raman House dormitory.

This old building was a huge structure with wooden pillars and ceiling of tin sheets and was used to house nearly 120+ cadets of Raman House from classes VIIIth- XIIth. It being tea-time break for the cadets, it looked as if some of the cadets were still inside the building.

While both the Officers: Principal and Vice-Principal along with the administrative staff and general employees were engaged in fighting fire, I found the teaching staff taking care of cadets and their belongings. The whole scene reminded me of the same remorse and apprehension as that of 9/11 attacks.

When a cadet enters the environs of Sainik School Imphal, the House Dormitories become a Home away from Home for all of them. It is here that they carve their niche identity. It is here that they learn to respect and imitate their seniors. Night after night, their elder brothers mould them to become strong until one fine day they too become independent and capable to groom their juniors.

So, a cadet’s personal belongings would include everything that he needs to make his life comfortable for a year. Every year, his cupboard keeps getting overloaded with his different pairs of uniforms, linen, accessories and most important stationery and text-books.I had heard from the staff that cadets adorned the walls of their cupboards and corridors with ‘choicest words and drawings’ to overcome their loneliness and become comfortable in the dormitories.

As the First Lady, I had never entered the dormitories as they are out of bound for families, parents as well as all outsiders. My husband’s fury would know no limits while he inspected the dormitories before he engaged the general employees for a white-wash during the summer vacations a year ago. But that day, I could see the remorse and pain in his eyes when he tried to remove the personal belongings of cadets from Raman House through its main gate.

Hardly had they managed to save a few trunks, when suddenly one of pillar from the wooden frame of the ceiling which was completely burnt in the fire, fell on the Librarian Mr Basanta’s chest. He got severe burns on his chest and upper body and had to be immediately evacuated to RIMS.

This sudden mishap worked havoc on the minds of all other staff members especially the female teaching staff. The shock and fear at the enormity of the Fire could be seen in everyone’s eyes who were present at the site.

Any attempt to enter the building through the main entrance was futile. I realized. My experience as a Station Fire Officer came handy and as I saw my husband trying to get help from the City Fire Department and other nearby Military Units, I decided to take a chance and enter the dormitory from the other side. I gathered a small team of employees and we entered the dormitory amid fierce fumes of fire.

One thing in our favour was that due to the heavy winds the fire was growing towards the ceiling, leaving us some opportunity to enter with small buckets of water and tin sheets near the floor. Still, it was not an easy task as the fire had generated extreme amount of heat and all glass panes of windows were gradually bursting around us.

With great difficulty when we entered one of the worst hit rooms in the dormitory, I was shocked to see the personal belongings of cadets; the hard-earned money of parents invested in getting them blankets, clothes, and books; all turning to ashes in front of me.

A gold medal won by one of the cadets in the recent Debate competition hung proudly, a poster of Messi, a neatly piled stack of text-books and even the well-polished black DMS boots – everything was slowly getting engulfed by the mighty flames of fire. Curbing the sudden surge of emotions, all of us who were inside tried to stay calm as we saw the Fire Tender slowly moving towards the site. Rest assured, we quickly moved out and let them handle the situation.

There was another battle that Team SSI had lined up for them: the MEDIA war. Somehow there were rumours spreading in the city amongst the parents about the fire and as a result we found a big crowd of parents, media persons, reporters from local channels hoarding at the gate for real-time information.

My husband decided to confront all of them personally to stop the bazaar of rumour mongers. He came out and spoke to all the parents gathered outside the school and assured them of the safety of their wards. With his right foot bleeding with a nail stuck through his melting leather shoe, he addressed many reporters one after the other and gave bytes to local news channels and assured everyone of the safety and security of all cadets.

After that he had a lot of calls to be made and a lot of explaining to be done to all higher authorities, SSI being a government aided school, as he kept track of the fire-fighting and the well-being of the cadets.

The challenge to be met now was consoling the cadets. The whole teaching staff was engaged in looking after the cadets, their dining arrangements and consoling those who had lost their personal belongings in the fire. The young ones were really shocked by the enormity of the fire and also by the degree of burns one of their favourite teachers had got.

They too needed a break to vent their own feelings and overcome the mental and physical exhaustion. Ms Sylvia, the young psychologist overcame her own emotions and went out of the way to answer the call of duty and counsel the shocked cadets. It was decided to send back the affected cadets whose parents lived in the vicinity of the school, especially the ones studying in class Xth and XIIth. Remaining cadets were accommodated in other hostels with their brothers.

By the evening the fire was completely ceased; an enquiry into finding facts related to the outbreak of fire was ordered; all cadets were accommodated safely and the staff members were deputed to make all kinds of alternate arrangements. None of us knew how we spent the night; but the next day came as a pleasant surprise as help started pouring in from all corners: State government officials, ex-cadets, members of parents association and old staff members.

Cadets of class Xth and XIIth who were to appear in Board exams were given extra coaching and print outs of books and notes by all the teachers personally. Following few days were spent in the conduct of an inquiry that investigated the reason for the outbreak of fire.

The role of foul play was ruled out and the short circuit of the old electric wires along with the heavy winds of the month of February were found to be the reason behind the quick spread and mass destruction at Raman House in this incident.

Nevertheless, the feeling of remorse and guilt of not being able to accommodate all the cadets well stayed with my husband and he immediately set out on looking for ways to get funds to construct a new House for the Ramanians. In the coming month of March during the prestigious Lai Haraoba, he prayed to God Almighty to fulfil his one last wish before going from this place.

Unfortunately, destiny changed and the whole state was engulfed in another bout of ethnic clashes. But he did not stop in trying to fulfil his last wish for SSI. He approached various departments and finally his proposal of construction of 02 Hostels (instead of 01) got accepted and now very soon construction is going to start.

Today on the first anniversary of the big FIRE Outbreak at Raman House, the hope that his last wish will not be left unfulfilled gives me immense joy. My heart leaps with joy as I know that in future once again the corridors of Raman House dormitory will be full of joy and laughter and its walls will be adorned with medals. Amen!

* Squadron leader Vidula Abhyankar (Retd) wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 25 February 2024.

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