Two diploma engineers and a supervisor who studied humanities ran the Sitakunda oxygen plant, while its air separation column operator was absent during the deadly blast, according to Sheema Group Managing Director Mamun Uddin.
Mamun faced questions at a discussion in Chattogram on making a plan to reduce the risks of accidents in heavy and medium industries in the district on Monday, two days after the explosion that killed seven people.
The company owns two oxygen firms as its subsidiaries. Oxi Oxygen runs three plants, while Sheema Oxygen Oxico operates two. Oxi Oxygen has three other plants which are shut, and Saturday’s blast devastated two of Sheema Oxygen Oxico’s plants.
Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Abul Bashar Mohammed Fakhruzzaman and Superintendent of Industrial Police Md Solaiman threw questions to Mamun as the managing director claimed the plant had been being operated in compliance with all the rules since his father Ahmed Shafi established it in 1996.
“We can’t guess why the blast occurred suddenly. The investigation committee visited the plant yesterday,” he said, hoping that the investigation would reveal the actual cause of the blast.
According to Mamun, 19 people – 14 workers, two operators, two administration officials and a supervisor – were at the plant during the explosion.
The operators were diploma engineers and had been running the plant for 27 years, but it did not have a mechanical engineer, he said.
Chinese engineers installed the plant after Sheema Group imported the machines from China, and the engineers stayed for three months until the commissioning of the plant and the beginning of production, Mamun said. The engineers stayed in Bangladesh for two more months to train the Bangladeshi operators.
Md Tofayel Ahmed, chief of Sitakunda Police Station, said the blast made it clear what happens when a factory is run by people other than skilled workers.
He mentioned that the air separation column operator was absent and another worker was doing his job during the blast.
Abdullah Al Shakib Mubarrat, deputy inspector general for Chattogram at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment, said it had warned Sheema Oxygen after finding problems at the plant last year.
After another inspection in December, the factory sought three months to settle the issues. “They made some corrections, but other problems remained. We also found faults in their Sheema Auto Re-rolling Mill and filed a case with the labour court. They promised to meet the requirements.”
Abdul Maleque, an assistant director at the Fire Service and Civil Defence, said they visited the Sheema Oxygen plant and other factories in Sitakunda in 2022 after the devastating BM Container Depot fire.
“We asked them [Sheema Oxygen] to implement a fire safety plan, but they didn’t.”
SM Shakhawat Hossain, an inspector at the Department of Explosives, said Sheema illegally refilled carbon dioxide and nitrogen cylinders with oxygen at the plant. “They were running the plant with unskilled workers. They could not show papers for safety valves or check-ups.”
Mamun claimed they used to produce nitrogen. But the cylinders remained after they stopped nitrogen production six months ago.
Deputy Commissioner Bashar said Sheema Oxygen also lacked environmental clearance, a licence for power connection and permission to set up a boiler. “They did not have many papers despite running a business for nearly three decades.”
Mamun skirted questions from journalists.