Is Old Dhaka fire another wake-up call?

In 2010 there were numerous calls for chemical warehouses to be removed from Old Dhaka because of their role in the fire that tore through Old Dhaka’s Nimtali. But little was done, and now, nine years later, at lest 70 lives have been lost in a blaze at Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar.

Published : 21 Feb 2019, 04:28 AM
Updated : 21 Feb 2019, 10:41 AM

Locals and the fire service are blaming these warehouses of unsafe, combustible materials for the intensity of the fire that broke out near the Shahi Mosque in Churihati on Wednesday, only half a kilometre away from the site of the Nimtali fire.

The fire started around 10 pm at a four-storey building owned by Wahid Chairman and spread to four nearby buildings, witnesses said.

The mixed-use building owned by a man known as Wahid Chairman housed shops on its ground floor. Its second storey contained a warehouse for toiletries and various plastic materials. The top two floors were residential units.

It was the fire on the second floor that caused the most difficulty for the fire service. Senior Correspondent Kamal Talukdar, who was present at the scene on Wednesday night, said:

“We could hear the sounds of several small explosions from inside.” photographer Asif Mahmud Ove saw numerous plastic containers of perfume, air fresheners and other burnt materials at the scene on Thursday morning, after the blaze was put out.

The crowded area also had several restaurants with gas cylinders. Many of the nearby buildings housed stores and warehouses with combustible materials.

“Regardless of how the fire started, it was the presence of the combustible materials on the second floor that caused the fire to spread to nearby buildings,” said Sharif, a local resident.

The fire first spread from the Wahid Chairman building to two neighbouring structures. Among them was a restaurant named Rajmoni Hotel. The fire then spread across the narrow alley to two other buildings.

Bottles of perfume, air-fresheners and raw materials for making plastic bags litter the narrow alley where a massive fire razed at least five buildings and several cars on Wednesday night. Inflammable materials stored in several buildings caused the fire to grow into a massive blaze. Photo: Asif Mahmud Ove

There were several gas cylinders on the road in front of the Rajmoni Hotel building, said Mohammad Bashar, a Haidar Box Lane resident.

After a transformer exploded the gas cylinders caught fire, the blaze spread to the road and nearby buildings, he said.

Though fire service officials have yet to confirm the cause of the fire, they blame the presence of combustible materials for the extent of the damage.

It took a long time to put tout the fires due to the presence of various chemicals, Fire Service and Civil Defence Director (Operations and Maintenance) AKM Shakil Newaz told reporters on Thursday morning.

The warehouses of chemical materials were also blamed for the intensity of the 2010 Nimtali fire, where over a hundred people lost their lives. A committee formed to investigate the fire had even recommended that the unsafe warehouses for chemicals be removed from the area.

Two years ago, Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Mohammad Sayeed Khokon had vowed the chemicals warehouses would be relocated from Old Dhaka, but there has been little visible progress on the matter.

Now the consequences of the inaction are apparent in the numerous lives lost in Chawkbazar. Most of the buildings in the retail markets of plastics and other goods in the area are very old and brush up against each other, making it easier for fires to spread quickly.

The narrow roads and the lack of open space hamper the speed of firefighting efforts.

Fire Service and Civil Defence Director Shakil Newaz reiterated the concern on Thursday morning. He also spoke of the dangers of the tangled and unsafe electrical wires in the area.

He also reminded reporters of the Nimtali fire. “It was a proper lesson. A wake-up call. We must pay heed.”