The Uphaar Cinema fire, one of the worst fire tragedies in recent Indian history, occurred on Friday, 13 June 1997 at Uphaar Cinema, in Green Park, Delhi, during the 3-to-6 pm screening of the movie Border.Trapped inside, 59 people died, mostly due to suffocation, and 103 were seriously injured in the resulting stampede.
The victims of the tragedy and the families of the deceased later formed The Association of Victims of Uphaar Fire Tragedy (AVUT), which filed the landmark Civil compensation case. It won ₹25 crore (equivalent to ₹47 crore or US$6.8 million in 2018) compensation for the relatives and families of the victims in the case, now considered a breakthrough in civil compensation law in India. However the Supreme Court on 13 October 2011, nearly halved the sum of compensation awarded to them by the Delhi high court and slashed punitive damages to be paid by cinema owners Ansal brothers from ₹2.5 crore (equivalent to ₹3.9 crore or US$560,000 in 2018) to ₹25 lakh (equivalent to ₹39 lakh or US$56,000 in 2018).
In its final order Supreme Court on 25 August 2015 modified its earlier order and ordered real estate barons Ansal brothers will undergo a two-year rigorous jail term in the Uphaar fire case if they fail to pay Rs.30 crore each within three months. SC reviewed this order again on 09 Feb 2017 and sentenced Gopal Ansal to one-year jail in the case, the other accused Sushil Ansal, got relief with the prison term already undergone by him.
On 13 June 1997 at about 6.55 a.m. the bigger of the two transformers installed and maintained by DVB on the ground floor of the Uphaar Cinema building caught fire. At around 7 a.m, an explosion had been heard by the security guard, Sudhir Kumar, who along with his friend found smoke in the transformer room. The fire brigade and the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) were informed and the fire was brought under control by 7.25 a.m. Inspection of the transformer by the Superintendent of the DVB and his team revealed that three of the low tension cable leads of the transformer had been partially burnt. At about 10.30 a.m., Inspectors from DVB along with Senior Fitter, conducted repairs on the transformer by replacing two aluminium sockets on the B-Phase of the low tension cable leads. The repairs, it appears, were carried out with the help of a die and hammer without the use of a crimping machine. DVB completed their repairs between 10:30 am and 11 am. The transformer was recharged for resumption of electric supply by 11.30 a.m. on 13 June 1997.
It is alleged that repairs conducted on the transformer in the earlier part of the day were unsatisfactory and resulted in loose connections that caused sparking on the B-Phase of the transformer where such repairs were carried out. This resulted in the loosening of one of the cables of the transformer which eventually came off and started dangling loose along the radiator and burnt a hole in the radiator fin. Through this hole the transformer oil started leaking out which, on account of the heat generated by the loose cable touching against the radiator, ignited the oil at about 4.55 p.m. on 13 June 1997. Since the transformer did not have an oil soak pit as required under the regulations and the standard practice, the oil that spread out of the enclosure continued leaking and spreading the fire to the adjacent parking lot where cars were parked at a distance of no more than a metre from the door of the transformer. The result was that all the cars parked in the parking area on the ground floor of the cinema hall were ablaze. Smoke started billowing in the northern and southward directions in the parking lot of the cinema complex. The northern bound smoke encountered a gate which was adjacent to a staircase leading to the cinema auditorium on the first floor. Due to chimney effect, the smoke gushed into the stairwell and eventually entered the cinema auditorium through a door and through the air conditioning ducts. The southward bound smoke similarly travelled aerially through another staircase and into the lower portion of the balcony of the auditorium from the left side. All this happened while a large number of people were seated in the auditorium enjoying the matinee show of ‘BORDER’, a popular Hindi movie with a patriotic theme.
Because of smoke and carbon monoxide released by the burning oil and other combustible material, the people in the auditorium started suffocating. The Shift In-charge of the Green Park Complaint Centre of DVB received a telephonic message at the relevant point of time, regarding the fire. It was only then that the AIIMS grid to which the transformer in question was connected was switched off and the flow of energy to the cinema complex stopped. According to the prosecution the supply of the 11 KV outgoing Green Park Feeder tripped off at 5.05 p.m. thereby discontinuing the supply of energy to the cinema. Inside the auditorium and balcony there was complete pandemonium. The people in the balcony are said to have rushed towards the exits in pitch darkness as there were neither emergency lights nor any cinema staff to help or guide them. No public announcement regarding the fire was made to those inside the auditorium or the balcony, nor were any fire alarms set off, no matter the management and the employees of the Uphaar Cinema were aware of the fact that a fire had broken out. Even the Projector Operator was not given instructions to stop the film while the fire was raging nor was any patron informed about the situation outside. On the contrary, doors to the middle entrance of the balcony were found to be bolted by the gatekeeper who had left his duty without handing over charge to his reliever. More importantly, the addition of a private 8-seater box had completely closed off the exit on the right side of the balcony, while the addition of a total of 52 extra seats over the years had completely blocked the gangway on the right side of the balcony. Similarly, the gangway on the right of the middle entrance was significantly narrower than required under the regulations. All these obstructions, deviations, violations and deficiencies had, resulted in the victims getting trapped in the balcony for at least 10–15 minutes exposing them to lethal carbon monoxide, to which as many as 59 persons eventually succumbed.
An off-duty Capt. Manjinder Singh Bhinder of the 61st Cavalry of the Indian army and a talented horse-rider, out celebrating his success at a recent national games with his family and a junior officer at the movie hall, gave his and his family’s lives up saving over a 150 people, on his personal initiative. Rushing out along with his family at first, realising the gravity of the unfolding tragedy, he and his people went back inside, and tried to set order and guide people out to safety. Fire services were delayed due to the heavy evening traffic and the location of the cinema hall, situated in one of the busiest areas of South Delhi. At least 48 fire tenders were pressed into service at 5.20 p.m. and it took them over an hour to put out the fire. Later the dead and the injured were rushed to the nearby All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Safdarjung Hospital, where scenes of chaos and pandemonium followed, as relatives and family members of the victims scurried around to look for known faces. Agency