‘The builders don’t care’: Dhaka reels from another deadly blaze

Questions mount about building safety in Bangladesh capital after inferno kills at least 25 people

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘The builders don’t care’: Dhaka reels from another deadly blaze” was written by Michael Safi in Delhi and Redwan Ahmed in Dhaka, for theguardian.com on Friday 29th March 2019 16.36 UTC

People grasped at ropes lowered from helicopters. They tried to slide down the building using its external wiring. Faced with no alternative, as the 22-storey FR Tower burned in Dhaka, at least six people leaped to their deaths.

Those who searched for the skyscraper’s emergency stairwell discovered none had been built.

On Friday morning, after yet another deadly inferno in Bangladesh’s capital, firefighters searched the charred shell of the tower for bodies as questions mounted about the stock of unsafe buildings in the world’s most densely populated city.

Police at the site said 25 bodies had been recovered and more than 70 were receiving treatment. It was not immediately clear if more were missing. “We’ve identified all of the bodies and 24 have been handed over to their families,” said Mostaq Ahmed, an officer with the Dhaka police.

Government officials visited throughout the morning and banners were hung up by the local government declaring the area was unsafe for the public. It remained cordoned off, with emergency workers carrying oxygen tanks filing in and out of the building and six fire engines parked in the narrow streets around the complex, in one of Dhaka’s upmarket neighbourhoods.

A young firefighter on the scene said he had joined the force less than a year ago. He was involved in fighting another deadly blaze in Dhaka’s old city last month that killed at least 70 people. It started in a chemical factory that was supposed to have been forced to the outskirts of the city.

“We’ve been trained to extinguish fire and save lives,” he said, asking not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media. “I feel very conflicted when I think about the old city fire and now this one. I’m happy and proud that I could be part of the force in these big events, but I get so depressed thinking about the lost lives.”

On Thursday, for the six hours the fire raged, the rescue efforts had been hampered by large crowds gathering outside the building. Students from nearby universities formed human chains to allow ambulances and water tankers to arrive at the scene.

The crowds returned on Friday, on streets littered with broken glass, shoes and debris from the fire. The air was still acrid and the outer walls of the building still wet from the efforts of firefighters. Tape across the front of the building identified it as a crime scene.

“A city where the spectre of fire looms,” the front page of Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper read. It included the results of a 2017 fire department survey of more than 3,700 buildings in Dhaka, which found just 129 had “satisfactory” fire vulnerability. The rest were classified as “risky” or “extremely risky”.

Bangladesh authorities have ordered an investigation into the blaze to examine claims the skyscraper lacked fire equipment, had inadequate fire exits and was at least four storeys higher than authorised. Police plan to question the building’s owner, SMHI Faruque, who is yet to comment publicly.

A survivor is rescued by firefighters
A survivor is rescued by firefighters.
Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

The fast-growing Bangladeshi megacity of more than 17 million people is a cocktail of disaster risks. Much of its development is unplanned and in zones vulnerable to earthquakes. Hundreds of buildings in its 17th-century old quarter are unreinforced, have ageing wiring and water supplies, and serve as illegal warehouses for chemicals. A 2015 study of the particularly crowded ward 29 found half its streets were too narrow for fire engines to navigate.

In 2012, a fire at a garment factory killed at least 112 people who were locked inside. Less than six months later, the Rana Plaza complex of garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.

While building codes have improved, their enforcement remains hampered by a poorly staffed and inadequately trained inspectorate.

“The buildings here don’t have any sort of integrated firefighting system,” Zulfiker Rahman, a director of the city’s fire department, said on Friday outside the FT Tower.

“Every building around here you can see, not a single one is equipped with a proper system to minimise fire hazard. And the builders just don’t care. Only when fatal accidents like this happen, they make some pretentious moves and then again set the issue aside.”

SM Rezaul Karim, the country’s public works minister, said Thursday’s deaths were no accident. “It was murder,” he said. “And those whose negligence caused these brutal murders, we’ll take legal action against them. No one will be spared, no matter how influential they might be.”

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