BANGLADESH

Dhaka firefighters told "too dangerous" to reach deadly blaze

After last week's devastating blaze in Dhaka saw its 119th victim on Monday, authorities began a crackdown on illegal chemical warehouses, which they blame for the fire. One of our Observers who was at the scene tells us why he thinks so many died. Read more...

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One of the victims being removed from the rubble the following day. Photo by Monirul Alam.

After last week's devastating blaze in Dhaka saw its 119th victim on Monday, authorities began a crackdown on illegal chemical warehouses, which they blame for the fire. One of our Observers who was at the scene tells us why he thinks so many died.  

The fire broke out on Thursday night in the densely populated Nimtoli district of Old Dhaka. It was initially blamed on a faulty electrical transformer and surrounding chemical stores, but the authorities are now focusing on "an illegal chemical warehouse", which they say caused flames to engulf the apartment block, on top of which a pair of newly weds were holding their reception.

"It seems that this time the order was given for the rescue team to hold back"

Monirul Alam is a photographer from Dhaka. He documented the scene the following day, when rescue workers and citizens searched for bodies in the rubble.

Firstly, we're angry about the time it took for the firefighters to get to the fire. The authorities blamed it on the location of the incident: in the middle of the old town, which is made up of very narrow streets. But we've had situations similar to this and they've always managed before.

It seems that this time the order was given for the rescue team to hold back because it was too dangerous to drive close to the burning building with no wide exit route.

The following day, the rescue operation continues. Photo by Monirul Alam.

Old Dhaka is worse than new Dhaka because it's both a residential and an industrial area and the buildings are very tall. Plus, many of the buildings are constructed or modified without government permission, or with the permission of a corrupt official.

There are also many stall owners in the street who sell scrap metal and newspapers etc. These people depend on their jobs entirely, you cannot just get rid of them. But they make it difficult for rescue workers to move quickly.

The gutted apartment block and surrounding buildings. Photo by Monirul Alam.

Building administrators are supposed to fit buildings with fire alarms but it's not a legal requirement and because it's their responsibility rather than home-owners, then very few do it. They are not reprimanded for not doing so.

Two of the 150 injured in the burns unit of the Dhaka Medical Hospital on Saturday, which is overloaded following the fire. Photo by Monirul Alam.

The main problem is the lack of regulations concerning certain chemicals. The chemicals are imported and used to make shoes, mobile phones etc. They're easily accessible here and can be found in every factory and warehouse. The problem is that the people who use them don't know how to look after them and until now the government had not offered any guidelines.

Both rescue workers and locals carry bodies out in wooden boxes. Photo by Monirul Alam.

The fire has pushed the government to launch initiatives, like regulating the supply and preservation of these chemicals and encouraging fire alarms. How long it will last however... I'm not overly optimistic."

Locals gather to watch. Photo by Monirul Alam.