“Fire in the Huts!!!” by John Chromy (India)

by John Chromy (India 1963–65)


Late one afternoon in November of 1964 my Peace Corps housemate, Gordon Louden and I were working at our desks in the Gramsevak Training Center, when we smelled smoke and began to hear people shouting and running toward some informal huts on the outer edge of our Training Center buildings.

In India there are numerous wandering, almost gypsy-like, tribes of working people who move to locations where there is seasonal or temporary work to be had. One of those tribes, the Lombardi people had come to Gangawati to work on the construction of feeder lines of the Tungabhadra Irrigation Project. They had established a semi-formal camp of about 50 huts on government-owned land about 40 yards north of our Center.

These huts were constructed of a wooden framing, walls made of sticks and shrubbery and roofs covered with straw, coconut leaves and other scrounged materials such as sheets of tin. This camp, being temporary, informal and unauthorized but tolerated by local officials, had no infrastructure services like water, sewage or electricity and was home to two hundred or more people. The families’ huts sat in eight rows of 6 or so huts each. The huts were about four feet from neighboring homes and the lane that existed between the rows was about ten feet wide.


When Gordon and I and about 8 of the trainees arrived at the source of the smoke, five of the houses in the outer southwestern row were aflame and the occupants and their neighbors were grabbing their children, goats and other belongings, and running screaming from the fire.

Gordon instructed the Gramsevak Trainees to help the families in the rest of the outer row and the second row to clear people and belongings out of their houses because it was clear we were not going to limit the fire to the already burning homes. The wood waddle construction was highly combustible, and the southwesterly wind was pushing the flames towards neighboring huts in the second row. In a matter of five minutes the initial five houses were completely consumed and four neighboring houses had caught fire. Our limited attempts to beat out the flames with moistened burlap bags and some buckets of water were clearly unsuccessful and the flames were already threatening the third row of huts.

At that point Gordon and I and one of the Training Center faculty members decided the only way to control the flames and save some of the families huts was to create a fire break by clearing out a row of huts and not allow the sparks to leap across the 20 foot open zone that would be created. It was also clear that the fire was moving so rapidly that we could not save the second row of huts, and our best bet was to tear down the next row of 7 huts. To that end we set the trainees and some family members to work clearing the people and belongings out of the third row and dismantling the huts as fast as humanly possible, dragging the rubble off to the side out of the path of the flames.

Needless to say, the next 20-30 minutes was total chaos — mothers and children being chased out of their homes, grabbing whatever possessions they could carry and screaming in fear and panic. Some of the women in the third row refused to leave and had to be removed bodily by female Gramsevak Trainees and two Trainees were assigned to patrol the third row and make certain no children or animals or elderly people were left behind. Some local farmers from nearby Odderhati Village came running with pickaxes, pitchforks and buckets to help drag down the huts and fight the flames.

Despite the intensity of the flames, the enormous heat from the wind blown smoke and the enormous fear, screaming and chaos all around the scene, we managed to clear away the third row of huts in time to break the path of the fire. Two clusters of sparks did manage to jump the fire break and reach houses in the fourth row, but by this time we had enough water and wet burlap to dampen and smother these small flames before the huts began to combust.

About an hour later the fires had burned down, having consumed the huts and some possessions of thirteen families in rows one and two. The seven families in row three had suffered the dismantling of their huts, but all were safe and most of their possessions were stacked in a messy pile away from the fire site.

There was a lot of anger amongst these families that their homes were destroyed by the rescuers and had not been affected by the actual flames. They were not receptive to the fact that their homes were sacrificed to save thirty plus homes in rows four, five, six, seven and eight. Gordon and I and some of the Training Center teachers were verbally vilified for about 20 minutes before we could disengage from these frightened and bereaved families.

After about three hours a truck carrying six police constables arrived from the town of Gangavathi, and we were able to hand over to them the site, the sorting out of possessions and the calming of the affected families.


Those of us who fought the flames were sweaty, tired, dirty and exhausted, but thankful there was no loss of human life (a few chickens, rabbits and a dog died in the fire) and many families’ homes were saved. That evening we reflected on our actions in helping these families despite having no fire fighting training, no fire trucks or water pumping equipment nor any direction from someone in authority. By default Gordie and I had directed the rescue and fire fighting operations, and we were grateful to the many students and villagers who ran to the scene and helped with the rescue and fire break operations.

In subsequent days three families came to our house to give us some bananas and to thank us for our help in saving their homes. Despite all the losses, fear, panic, heat and exhaustion I believe this was one of the most rewarding days in my Peace Corps life.

Gordon and I took deep satisfaction in our having stepped up in a time of crisis and helped a lot of people — we judged we had done the Peace Corps proud, because that’s what Peace Corps Volunteers do — in times of need they step in and help people.



John Chromy (India 1963–65) returned to India (1967-69) as an APCD. He was also a PC/Country Director in the Eastern Caribbean Islands from 1977-79, and in PC/Washington he was Associate Director for Volunteers.

From 1981-90 he was the U.S. National Director for Special Olympics, and from 1990 to 1995 he owned and managed a private sector retail food business.  From 1996 until retirement in 2012 he was a Senior Manager and Vice-President for an international NGO currently known as Global Communities. John and his wife Nora reside in the Washington D.C. area.


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