“Five charred bodies were found at the site. We are investigating the matter,” Pune police commissioner Amitabh Gupta told TOI.
Police said preliminary information revealed that the five victims were among the workers hired by a contractor for some civil work, including electrical and pipe fitting jobs, on the sixth and topmost floor of the facility. After the fire brigade put out the blaze, the contractor reported that some of his men were missing. Their bodies were found during a search.
Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope, who was updated by district collector Rajesh Deshmukh, told TOI, “Prima facie, welding work at the plant firing up installation material has been ascertained as the cause of the fire. I want to reiterate that the Covishield vaccine plant is far away from the site that caught fire. There are absolutely no losses of the Covid vaccine.”
Adar Poonawalla, owner and chief executive officer of SII, posted on his official Twitter handle: “We have just received some distressing updates; upon further investigation we have learnt that there has unfortunately been some loss of life at the incident. We are deeply saddened and offer our deepest condolences to the family members of the departed.”
Poonawalla later told TOI, “The rotavirus vaccine facility, where the fire broke out, was an additional manufacturing unit that got damaged in the blaze. Covishield production will not be affected as our plant has multiple manufacturing units.” Rotaviruses are the most common cause of diarrhoeal disease among infants and young children.
SII CMD Cyrus Poonawalla said in a statement: “Today (Thursday) is an extremely sorrowful day for all of us at SII. Regrettably, there were losses of lives in the fire that broke out in our under-installation facility situated at the special economic zone at Manjari.”
“We are deeply saddened and offer our condolences to the families of the departed. In this regard, we will be offering compensation of Rs 25 lakh to each of the (victim’s) family, in addition to the mandated amount as per norms. We would like to extend our gratitude to everyone for their concern and prayers in this distressing time,” he added.
On Thursday evening, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who is also Pune’s district guardian minister, visited SII. “The Pune police commissioner has been told to conduct a thorough inquiry into the fire incident,” he said.
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray was updated about the incident by Poonawalla and would visit the fire-hit plant on Friday, a release issued by the former’s office said. The blaze engulfed floors three to six of the building. There were conflicting versions about whether the fire started from the third or the sixth floor. The authorities were verifying these details. A crowd of local residents and onlookers gathered around the facility as plumes of thick smoke billowed out of the building.
“The charred bodies were found on the sixth floor during a search operation after the fire brigade personnel put out the blaze (it took more than two hours),” Pune mayor Murlidhar Mohol told reporters at the site.
Factory manager Vivek Pradhan said the fire broke out in the rotavirus laboratory on the third floor where BCG vaccine stock was stored. “Some electrical and pipe fitting work was in progress. At least four workers engaged by a civil contractor were stuck on the terrace and rescued by fire brigade personnel,” Pradhan said.
Prashant Ranpise, chief fire officer of Pune Municipal Commission, told TOI, “Most of the BCG vaccines were kept in an airtight glass cabin on the third floor. Our firemen found it tough to bring the blaze under control.”
District collector Rajesh Deshmukh was briefed about the fire by SII executive director Suresh Jadhav.
SII is manufacturing Covishield in India. The vaccine has been developed by UK’s Oxford University and British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical AstraZeneca. Covishield is among the only two vaccines granted emergency-use approval in India for country-wide vaccinations, which began on January 16.