A tragedy that could have been averted?

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Youshra Ahmed, a 7-year-old playful child from Norochcholai, was new to the Metro Apartments in Slave Island. The view from the ninth floor in her grandmother’s apartment, the children in the neighbouring apartments, and playing hide-and-seek around the concrete pillars of the giant new building was something that she didn’t get to see often at her house in Norochcholai. Little did she know that the view from the ninth floor in the heart of the busiest city will cost her life.

Youshra and her family came to Colombo on 9 September, to prepare for her elder sister’s wedding. They planned to stay at her grandmother’s house for a few days until they finished shopping in Pettah, as it would be cheap and convenient. On 10 September, the family decided to leave Youshra with her grandmother and the little child continued to play with children in the neighbouring apartment.

“She was playing with the phone and watching cartoons at 12:00 p.m. I was in the front room and I saw her keeping the phone and going out to play with the children in the neighbouring apartment. At about 1:45 p.m. or 2:00 p.m., I heard a small sound and woke up. I searched the house, but the child was nowhere to be seen. On asking the neighbour if she is at their place, I was told that she left a while ago. I started to worry and scoured the entire ninth floor. Then one of the neighbours yelled that they can see two legs on the second-floor balcony through our second room window. I was stunned, I cannot remember what happened after that,” Youshra‘s grandmother told Ceylon Today.

That fateful day

According to the neighbour’s statement, Ceylon Today learns that the child left their house by 1:30 p.m. and snuck into the next room while the grandmother was sound asleep.

Unfortunately, Youshra, who wanted to explore her new surroundings, climbed onto a bed that was close to the window and leaned over. Because she was too short to peek out of the window, she had stacked three pillows on top of each other and leaned over. As there was no support or any safety grills, Youshra lost her balance and plummeted to the second-floor balcony, which was designed as an open shopping area. The post-mortem report said Youshra suffered multiple chest and abdominal injuries, due to blunt trauma.

The neighbour said according to investigators, Youshra died five minutes after impacting the balcony.

The neighbour who spoke to Ceylon Today said despite several attempts to fix safety grills to the windows and even safety gates to their doors, the maintenance committee and UDA officials shrugged off their suggestions and some who went ahead and fixed those grills and gates had to remove them due to pressure.

Makeshift grill

“One of the residents who has a child with special needs fixed safety gates and grills to the windows, spending over Rs 50,000 three years ago and was forced to take them off by the UDA officials and the maintenance committee. We have requested the committee several times to consider permitting these grills, as there are many families with small children. Despite having separate fire exits, they still want us to keep these windows as an extra option. Even when we lean on the windows we feel dizzy. What’s the point in being paranoid about a danger that might happen one day, while endangering our children’s lives every day? Their paranoia has taken its toll, and an innocent 7-year-old had to pay with her life,” the neighbours lamented.

Mohomad Azar Salahudeen, maintenance committee organiser, said the maintenance committee and the Urban Development Authority officers do not encourage the residents to cover their windows with grills, as in the event of a fire, firefighters need to break in to evacuate residents.

“According to the structure of these apartments, some residents do not have enough space or a balcony to dry their clothes. If we give them permission to put grills on their windows, they might use it to dry their undergarments. This apartment is in the heart of Colombo, surrounded by five-star hotels and prestigious projects. We have standards. This happened because this child is not used to this environment and the residents have placed the bed pretty close to the window. The maintenance committee does its best to avert danger. There are approximately 2,000 residents in this apartment complex, yet there are a few who block the fire exits by drying their clothes in the fire exit staircase, who block the gas lift by dumping trash in front of it, and mothers who keep their children close to windows while feeding them. Isn’t all this dangerous? When we tell them to desist, they curse us,” he added.

He said the UDA cannot be blamed in this case, as parents and guardians should have an eye on their children. He even insinuated that he was expecting such an incident from the 11th floor of the third tower, as there are some mothers who feed their children while carrying them with one hand and show them birds, despite countless warnings not to do so.

Unfamiliar

Meanwhile, Ceylon Today also spoke to the Assistant Manager of Metro Homes Project UDA, M.W.J.W. Kumara in regard to the safety grills. He said he regretted what happened to the child.

“There are a lot of children in this building, yet there haven’t been such things reported in the  four years since this apartment was vested in the public, because they are used to this lifestyle and surroundings, but this child’s inquisitiveness and their parents’ or the guardians’ negligence has resulted in such a tragedy. Though the residents were told they aren’t allowed to fix safety grills, they can make special requests, underlining the necessity of such safety grills and get permission to fix them. Once they are given permission, they can fix safety grills without tarnishing the image of the building. There is no problem with fixing safety grills,” he added.

When Ceylon Today highlighted that the maintenance committee strongly discouraged installing safety grills due to fire safety concerns, we were told that in the event of a fire, residents can evacuate through the fire exits.

After the investigation of an inquisitive child’s tragic fate, Ceylon Today is still curious whether paranoia of the maintenance committee, building’s outlook-friendly regulations of the UDA, or parental negligence was to blame.

(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)

By Nabiya Vaffoor

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