Blazing inferno at Chawkbazar: Task-force on fire safety a must

Despite the fact that there are adequately knowledgeable traders in the business community, it cannot but defy common sense why the guild leaders of dealers in combustible chemicals and flammable substances of Churihatta — the spot of the 21 February devastating blaze at Chawkbazar killing 69 persons — after long 8 (eight) years could not learn any lesson from the Nimtoli blazing inferno of 3 June 2010 in downtown Dhaka that killed 124 people. This we say because it was so to speak a repeat performance of the deadly Nimtoli tragedy.
The Churihatta fire instantly harks back to the Nimtoli fire because of its striking resemblance. Originating from an electrical transformer explosion, the fire was presumed to be fanned by chemicals as well as combustibles stored in shops, and the narrow lanes of the densely populated residential area made it hard for firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
The injured Nimtoli fire victims were treated at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, which struggled to cope with the huge number of patients suffering burns. Never in the history of Bangladesh so many died in a single accident nor had the city’s largest graveyard at Azimpur ever seen so many coffins at a time. Special prayers were held at mosques, temples, churches and pagodas all over the country for salvation of the departed souls. The heads of governments of several foreign countries, including the USA and Great Britain, instantly sent their condolences. Flags were kept at half-mast atop all official, semi-official buildings and establishments at home and Bangladeshi embassies abroad.
To begin with, there are more than 25,000 chemical warehouses in that area, of which around 15,000 are in residential buildings. Fire service officials said only around two percent storehouses have permission from Dhaka City Corporation. These storehouses are built in just about inaccessible rooms and buildings, meaning these are unapproachable to firefighters. Fire service officials said only around two percent storehouses have permission from the city corporation. After the Nimtoli fire in 2010, the government had pledged to relocate chemical warehouses from the older part of Dhaka to a thinly populated area at Keraniganj across the river Buriganga, which has not been done as yet. According to news reports, around 98 percent of the chemical warehouses are illegal and they operate at night. Fire Service Director General Ali Ahmed said his office had warned the warehouse owners several times, but in vain. Chief inspector of the Department of Explosives said following the Nimtoli incident they had banned storage of 29 explosive chemicals without their permission and decided to relocate the warehouses. “If the embargo could be implemented, the fire would not have happened”.
Reportedly it is claimed that the fire started due to the explosion of a gas cylinder in a vehicle. The fire from the gas cylinder was easily allowed to spread into a nearby chemical factory, and the fire later transformed into a deadly blaze, engulfing other buildings including a community centre close by. There remains some confusion regarding the presence of a “CNG cylinder as some witnesses have claimed that the pick-up’s CNG cylinder sparked the fire while others have claimed that an LPG cylinder at a restaurant near Hazi Wahed Mansion triggered the fire,” said a newspaper report.
As per CCTV footage the first explosion that led to the fire in Chawkbazar area might took place at Haji Wahed Mansion, suggested footages of at least two separate CCTVs installed nearby. Hundreds of perfume containers started raining down on the people stuck on the roads as the fire was racing through other buildings. Repeated explosions occurred for the next few minutes, the clips show. Besides, the chief inspector at the Department of Explosives told this the Daily Star that they had not found any sign of a cylinder blast.
Following the Nimtoli tragedy, government high-ups made statements on the actions they would take so that a fire like that would never occur again. Dilip Barua, the then industries minister said, “Action would be taken against the traders for failing to meet the deadline set by the government. There is no scope for extending the deadline further.” After the Nimtoli tragedy, a government probe committee had made a 17-point recommendation suggesting reallocation of warehouses to nonresidential areas, enforcing Fire Prevention and Extinguishing Rules 2003 and Bangladesh National Building Code, installing separate hydrant points in the city’s different areas, forming a cross-functional license issuing body. Experts opined that the government needed to identify, sack and arrest those officials responsible for ensuring that there were no illegal chemical warehouses in older part of Dhaka.
Exposure to the hazards associated with non-water-based chemicals has also increased, one potential danger is flammability. To prevent fires, hazardous liquids require special precautions in storage, handling and use. A total of 360 factories and stores of chemicals were found to operate in the areas, said a Fire Service and Civil Defence survey in 2017; in contrast residents of Old Dhaka say that the number could be close to 1,000. Be that as it may, the core issue is, these warehouses pose veritable danger to the people.
In sum, the Chawkbazar inferno happened due to the flammable chemical dealers’ unprincipled negligence and governance failure. Had there been sincere effort from the regulatory bodies to enforce fire code— which is the bare minimum— colossal loss of life and property could have been avoided. Provided that there are various agencies and departments involved in the import of chemicals, constituting a national taskforce on fire safety brooks no delay.

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