There are some people who just light up the lives of those around them. They always seem to be thinking about what they can do to make everyone else’s life just a little bit better, and when you know someone like that, it’s an easy thing to cherish their friendship.
It’s usually by doing the little things, small acts of kindness, that those wonderful people enrich the lives of others. But every now and then, someone sees the need for something big to be done and steps up to make it happen.
When you think of India, some of the first things that spring to mind are its rich culture, ancient architecture, or its many religious faiths. All of those compelling aspects of the world’s second most populous country have one thing in common: they are generally looking towards India’s past.
Perhaps the most defining thing about India’s present and future is its rapid development. The country has been focused on technological and infrastructure development for decades and it boasts the fastest growing economy in the world.
The city of Gurugram in northern India is a perfect example of that development. Beginning in the 1970s, it’s rapid economic growth started when the leading Indian car maker established a manufacturing plant there. In the decades since, it’s transformed into a financial and technological hub, the sort of city that young professionals tend to flock to round the world.
One of those young professionals was a 33-year-old woman named Swati, who lived on the fifth floor of one of Gurugram’s many high-rise apartments with her husband Girish and their four-year-old daughter, as well as Swati’s mother Vaishali.
Swati was the sort of person who was always interested in making things beautiful and making the people around her happy, which led her to a career in interior design. “Swati was of a helping nature,” said Lalita, one of her neighbors.
“She was the kind of person who would be ready to help anybody, anytime,” Lalita continued. With her eye for aesthetics and her kind and generous nature, she brought joy into the lives of all the people around her.
But her desire to help others went far beyond the superficial, as she would demonstrate through acts that were as heroic as they were tragic. It all began late one evening when Swati was awakened around 2 a.m. by something dreadful: heavy smoke.
Wasting no time, she immediately woke up her family, telling her husband that they needed to get her mother and their daughter to safety as quickly as possible. And true to her nature, Swati didn’t just get her family and run. She went to the door of each person on her floor, waking them all up, making sure they were safe and gathering them together.
“Around 2:10 a.m., Swati knocked on my door and said there’s a fire,” said Swati’s friend and next door neighbor Lalita Soni. “When we first got out of the flat, there was smoke all around,” said Girish. “We first tried to go downstairs but could not go beyond the third floor.” There was a serious problem: the building only had a single stairwell for a fire exit and that was filled with choking smoke and at the third floor, was blocked entirely by flames.
Because the flames blocked the residents from leaving the building, Swati thought fast about what they could do. “She suggested we go to the terrace,” Laliti said. “She was ahead of us. Her mother, husband and daughter were also there. I was with my family too.”
The frightened residents rushed back up to Swati and Girish’s flat where they wrapped themselves in wet towels before heading back out into the stairwell, this time moving to upper floors. “By the time we reached the eighth floor, I was struggling to breathe,” Garish said. “The door of one of the flats there was open and I got in with my daughter.” But somewhere along the way, he lost track of Swati and his mother in law.
“She was ahead of us,” Lalita said. While the others had gone into the eighth floor flat, “she was too far ahead and had reached the 9th floor terrace, I guess.” But rather than escaping the smokey hallway to the relative safety of the outdoor terrace, Swati had found the gate to the outside locked.
Swati was trapped in the stairwell with the rapidly thickening smoke. She had no idea that there had been an open apartment that was relatively safe from the flames or she likely would have tried to make it back down. If she cried out for help, no one could hear her.
Swati Garg spent her last moments choking on thick smoke in the overwhelming heat of the fire raging floors below, struggling to open a locked gate, beyond which lay fresh air and the hope of rescue. Firefighters would later find her hand prints on the walls on and around the gate, telling the tragic story.
It would take those firefighters nearly 45 minutes to reach the tower. The astoundingly long response time was due in part to the same rapid development that made Gurugram so attractive. Their high-rise, called Tulip Orange, was built in one of the newer sectors of the city where the government had yet to build a fire station, meaning firefighters had to come from nearly ten miles away.
Dying a Hero
Though Swati had passed away in the fire, she hadn’t died in vain. Because of her efforts to get her neighbors out of their apartments and to safety, they all survived until the firefighters were able to get the blaze under control. She was the only person who died that night.
Owing Your Life
In addition to her family being devastated, her neighbors took the loss of their friend very badly as well. “There was a guy, her neighbor, who was fast asleep after returning home late,” a neighbor named Annu said. “She made sure that she woke him up and saved him. The boy is traumatized now that Swati saved his life.”
“We cannot compensate for it in any manner,” Annu continued. “Her child is so young, she doesn’t even understand what death is.” To add to the misfortune, Swati’s mother Vaishali had some serious health problems.
The 61-year-old Vaishali suffered from a number of burns which probably wouldn’t have been life-threatening on their own. But the woman, who suffered from asthma, inhaled a significant amount of smoke and after spending several days in the hospital, she eventually succumbed to her injuries.
The second death as a result of the fire stoked the anger of the residents, who had found out that the fire was caused by a short circuit in an electricity meter on the first floor. The flames rose all the way to the tenth floor within minutes, though they remained contained to the power shaft of the stairwell.
Had there been a second stairwell or some sort of fire escape system on the outside of the building, residents of the high-rise likely would have been able to escape the building without any trouble, and Swati and Vaishali would still be alive.
The residents were also mad that Swati’s heroics were even necessary, since the fire alarms located in the building apparently didn’t work at all. On top of that, the building’s fire extinguishers were also inoperative.
Matter of Concern
“Fire extinguishers are equipped on every floor but what’s the use if they don’t work when needed?” Annu asked. “It was night and the fire alarms didn’t go off. That is a matter of concern. there was surely negligence on the part of the maintenance staff.”
Honering Her Memory
The residents of the tower wanted to do something to honor Swati’s sacrifice. “We might donate to an orphanage or an old age home in Swati’s name so that her memory lives on,” Annnu said. “We might pay her tribute by making sure that we get regular audits done so nobody else has to meet the fate she has met. Swati’s life was lost due to somebody else’s negligence. We could avoid that.”