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Dow Hill School junior section in Kurseong gutted in fire

Dow Hill School junior section in Kurseong gutted in fire
The junior section of the 135-year-old Dow Hill School in Kurseong was gutted in a fire that raged for four hours till early this morning, leaving the authorities wondering how they could accommodate the students when the institution reopened after winter location in March.

The two-storied structure - made of cement, stone, tin and timber - housed classrooms from Lower Kindergarten to Class III, separate dormitories for junior girls and boys, a dining hall and two quarters of the matrons in charge of the junior section.

As the school was closed for winter vacation, nobody was present at the time of the blaze. Each dormitory could accommodate 45 children. Only the concrete wall stood intact after the blaze that devoured the tin-roof and ground and top floors made of timber.

Rita Sinha, principal of the school, said: "Since the school has been closed for winter vacation, there were no students on the campus. Around 10 last night, one of the four night guards on the campus called me to inform that a fire had broken out in the junior section. I rushed out and found that the blaze was spreading fast as there was a strong breeze."

The school, set up in 1879 by then Lt Governor of Bengal, Sir Ashley Eden, has produced luminaries in different walks of life, including Anne Lumsden, a hockey player and the first woman Arjuna Award winner in 1961, Bollywood actor Mahima Choudhury, Bengali actor-director Churni Ganguly and bureaucrat-turned politician Manish Gupta.

Dow Hill enrols boys till Class III after which only girls read there. Next to Dow Hill is Victoria Boys' School which has Classes from IV to X. Dow Hill and Victoria Boys are the only ICSE schools administered by the Bengal government. Students from Calcutta, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh study at Dow Hill.

Sinha said she had immediately called up administrative officials and the fire station. "The fire tenders did arrive but the bigger ones could not reach the spot because of the steep and narrow roads," she said.

The school is situated 3km from Kurseong town.

Administrative sources said nine fire tenders, including some from Siliguri, Matigara, Darjeeling and Bijanbari, had been pressed into service. "Of the nine tenders, six could reach the spot," said a district official.

Anurag Srivastava, district magistrate, Darjeeling, said: "The information (about the fire) was received at 10.19pm and blaze was controlled by 2.30am. It took some time to control the flames because big fire engines could not enter the area due to narrow roads and sharp turns. The cause of the fire is being ascertained."

The junior section was being repaired after the school closed for vacation. Spread over 35 acres, Dow Hill has a total 460 students. The junior section has 200 students, including 75 boarders. "The total number of boarders in the schools is 130," said the principal.

The school is set to reopen after the winter vacation on March 3. With the junior section, including the hostel, completely gutted, the administration is now looking at creating alternative arrangements.

"We will have to sit down with the teachers and officials and look at the possibility of making alternative arrangements. It will be difficult to accommodate the juniors in seniors' dormitories. Moreover, we have also boys," said Sinha.

The other buildings on the Dow Hill campus are the main school, senior dormitory, teachers' quarters, principal's office and gymnasium.

Childhood in flames: Churni, Dow Hillians reacted with shock and sadness at the junior section's destruction.

Actor-cum-director Churni Ganguly said when she had first heard about the fire from a forester friend posted in Gorumara in the Dooars, she thought it couldn't be for real. "Then I thought the gentleman (who gave her the news) couldn't be telling untruth. My heart wrenched. It was like a part of my childhood going up in flames. It hurts. It is like losing someone close to you. Even if something swanky comes up in its place, I will not be able to relate to it. When we were there, we could hear the creek in every plank of the wood (on the floors) we stepped on...,"said Churni, who passed out of Dow Hill in 1985.

For students like Robin Thapa, who studied in the early 70s, watching his alma mater burn right before his eyes was extremely painful.

"I reached the school barely half-an-hour after the fire was first noticed. It was an incredibly sad moment to see my old school burning right in front of me...When the first of the fire tenders arrived after the entire building was engulfed in flames, I couldn't help but shout at the fire fighters for coming late. It was a small fire tender ill-equipped to tackle such an inferno," said Thapa, who lives near the school.

Many ex-students of Dow Hill and its brother school Victoria Boys' School put up the picture of the school buildings on their Facebook profiles. Social media was full of messages expressing sadness from the school's alumni spread across the world.

The school started functioning in 1879 from a house called Constantia near Kurseong town with 15 boys and girls and was later shifted to the present site in Dow Hill.

Bardaan Sinchuri, a local resident, said: "I was on the school premises around 7.30pm and everything was fine. The renovation of the building was going on. Suddenly, I heard that it was up in flames. A lot of local people came here and tried to help in whatever way they could. However, nothing much could be done as the fire spread fast due to the wind."(TT)

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