New Delhi, India – It was early on Sunday morning when Ruksana Khatoon, 47, received a telephone call from a relative telling her that her two sons were missing.
They had left their village in the northern state of Bihar to work in New Delhi. But at about 4am local time on Sunday, a fire broke out in the multi-storey building that housed the factory where they worked.
At least 43 people died in the Indian capital’s deadliest fire in 20 years, although Ruksana did not know that then. All she knew was that her sons were unaccounted for.
She immediately left for the city with her husband, three of her daughters and another relative. They travelled the more-than 1,200km (745-mile) journey by train, arriving in New Delhi early on Monday morning.
She searched the city’s hospitals for her sons. Finally, at one, she learned what had happened to them.
Her youngest son, 19-year-old Mohammad Gyas, had died in the fire. Her oldest son, 24-year-old Mohammad Mubarak, had jumped from one of the building’s windows. He was being treated in the hospital’s burns ward.
Ruksana’s husband told Mubarak that his younger brother had died, but she has not been allowed to see her son yet and does not know how serious his injuries are.
“My whole world was shattered,” Ruksana explained as she sat with her daughters on the street outside the mortuary.
In the cold of winter, the family – unable to afford a hotel – had been sitting there since Monday afternoon, waiting for the authorities to release her son’s body so that it could be returned to their village for a proper burial.
Ruksana cried as she spoke. Every now and again, one of her daughters would lean in to hug her and wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“I am yet to see his body,” she said. “I still can’t believe that my boy is dead. I don’t know how I will react once I see him. He was only trying to help his family to make ends meet.”
Supporting his family
It was six months ago that Gyas arrived in New Delhi, joining his older brother who had been working there for several years.
As his father could no longer do physical farm labour, Gyas had to start working to help support his family of eight.
There are four sisters in the family, Ruksana explained, only one of whom is married. In order to save enough money to pay for the weddings of his other three sisters, Ruksana persuaded Gyas to go to New Delhi to work.
Now, she says she blames herself for what happened to him.
“Little did I know that this would happen or else I would have never asked him to leave home.”
‘We will never speak again’
Anil Kumar, 44, is also waiting outside the mortuary. His 18-year-old nephew, Rahul Kumar, died in the fire.
Rahul only arrived in New Delhi from the Sant Kabir Nagar district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh 15 days ago.
He, too, was working in the factory.
“He was extremely bright and did some amazing drawing,” Anil explained, his eyes swollen from crying but his voice steady. “He could make sketches of people with such ease and that is why we sent him here so that he could improve his skill.”
Most of Rahul’s family are farm labourers and when they do not have work back home, they migrate to New Delhi in search of something to tide them over.
Anil recalled how he had not even said goodbye to Rahul when he left home two weeks ago. “I would have felt a little better if I would have spoken to him,” he reflected. “Now we will never speak again.”
Returning the bodies
There were many other families waiting by the mortuary gates. Some of them frantically tried to arrange the paperwork they needed in order for their loved one’s body to be released; others discussed the best way to return the bodies to their villages and how to get back quickly enough themselves to attend the funerals. Many just sat in silence.
When the government of Bihar announced its intention to return the bodies of the deceased by train, the families complained. Government officials have since agreed to provide ambulances, but that plan also comes with problems.
We have run out of cash ... The poor can't even travel by train to meet their dead without paying such hefty fines.
“The authorities are saying that each ambulance will carry two bodies and only two family members would be allowed to travel alongside. How can four people and two bodies cover the 22-hour long journey in small ambulances?” asked Ruksana.
With only two relatives able to travel in the ambulance, other family members who have travelled to New Delhi will face hurdles in the form of time and cost.
“We have run out of cash. We came here on a train and despite buying the tickets, the ticket collector slapped a fine of 800 rupees ($11) on each family member [because they had unknowingly entered a reserved coach]. I kept telling him about the tragedy but he paid no heed. The poor can’t even travel by train to meet their dead without paying such hefty fines,” Ruksana explained.
Young and poor
Most of those who died in the fire were poor, young men from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who would sleep in the factory in order to save money on accommodation. There were five minors among them.
When the fire broke out, they could not escape.
The factory where they died did not have the necessary permissions to operate as a commercial establishment in the residential area where it was located.
Several such factories operate in the narrow lanes of that neighbourhood and high voltage wires hang around the homes there.
“Too many people work in cramped rooms in this neighbourhood and short circuit fires are quite common. The government needs to act fast to ensure that illegal factories are shut down in the area since it not only is dangerous for workers but also for residents. If they ignore this, there could be more such incidents in future,” explained Mohammad Qayyum, a resident of the neighbourhood.
Police have arrested the owner and manager of the factory.
A preliminary investigation has revealed that a short circuit from an electricity box led to other flammable items catching fire. The factory did not have safety clearance to run a boiler, it had no exit routes, it had not been inspected by government officials, it had no license to store flammable goods and four gas cylinders were being illegally stored there.
The police and fire departments told Al Jazeera that they would only be able to comment once their investigations had been completed.