It was a cold January 2002 day (I do not remember the exact date). I was 17 and part of a tuition centre of around 20 students of different ages and classes set up in the fourth storey of a building.
I vividly remember a kerosene heater placed right next to the only entrance to the large hall (around 40X40) we were studying in. No desks, just sitting cross legged on mats.
About half an hour later, the glowing hot heater suddenly started to make strange sounds as if something were bursting within it. A student of my class (you know those who act and then think) stood up to check what was wrong with the heater.
As he tried to lift the lid, the flames suddenly rose high startling him so much so that he ended up overturning the metal tool on which the heater was placed.
BAMMM!! The heater rolled right down the stairs, the kerosene in it burst out, setting up a trail of fire as we were shocked seeing our only exit route up in huge flames.
It all happened in a matter of 10 to 15 seconds. Even worse, the floor we were in was the uppermost storey with an attic made of wood followed by a tin roof, and the staircase was covered with broadloom.
The whole hall was filled up with black smoke since it was kerosene, wood, and the matting burning all at once. Around 20 of us were shouting on top of our voices, many starting to choke out already, as we rushed towards the other end of the hall to pull open the windows which were covered with plastic sheets (as is the norm in Kashmir winters to keep the rooms warm). Around 40 feet away from where the fire was blazing, even till this day, I can vividly remember how I felt the heat on my back. We knew it was the end.
As we opened the windows, we saw many people gathered on the ground shouting. Some were bringing ladders. But we were on the fourth floor and there was no way one could survive if he jumped. All of us were trying to peep our heads out of the windows to breath as the hall was totally filled with black smoke and enormous heat.
HERE CAME THE MOMENT OF MAKING THE TOUGHEST DECISION IN MY LIFE.
DO I BURN TO DEATH, OR DO I JUMP TO DEATH?
As the heat got unbearable, I decided to hang down holding the ledges with my hands.
Yes, I’d decided that I will fall rather than choose the terrible death by burning. In those few seconds, I was thinking what would happen to me when I jump. If at all I survive, what grave injuries would I suffer?
Most of the other students too were either up on ledges or dangling in the air. Some had passed out already in the burning hall.
As we hung on (and it must have been 30 seconds or even lesser), suddenly we heard someone shouting from the windows of the third storey.
Yes! Some brave guys had dared to run up to the third storey and had ladders and ropes with them. It was a miracle as they stretched out climbing on the ledges of the third storey, some holding the bamboo ladders, others climbing up to pull us down.
I felt someone’s hand on my feet as I dangled in the air.
“Let go, don’t worry!” the man in his 30s told me.
Obviously, I DID NOT. Not until his shoulders were right underneath my feet.
He slowly dragged me down as I felt safe holding on first to his body and then to the bamboo ladder.
I cannot tell you how happy I was when I landed on the ledge of the 3rd floor.
We all were saved in the same fashion except for two younger students (of class 6th I think) who had sneaked into a small storeroom in the hall and had passed out (as we would come to know about it later)
In the meantime, the flames were rising above the tin roof now.
One of the brave heroes who saved us then did something unthinkable. He wrapped himself in a blanket, covered his face and head with multiple folds of cloth and went into the burning hall to look for any one left behind.
He brought out the two unconscious, and seemingly dead, kids as me and hundreds in the crowd saw him puffing out black smoke as he held them out from the window so that others could take hold of them.
Luckily, the kids were still breathing. The hero was also not well as he had inhaled a lot of smoke.
They all were rushed to the hospital. And that is when the fire brigade arrived.
At least 15 to 20 minutes had passed as I sat in the park facing the burning building thinking about the most harrowing moment in my life.
We all survived. We all realised the meaning of life. We all had a close shave with death. We all thanked the Lord and the saviours.
Whenever I think of it, I remember the famous and equally disturbing photograph of the falling man.
The one who decided to jump off the World Trade Centre during the 9/11 attack.
To burn or to jump? That was the most difficult decision in my life.