Dhaka: A city on the edge

I would like to begin this article by offering my condolences and heartfelt prayers to the victims of the fire tragedies and their families. Many acquaintances have been deeply affected by the incident. Relatives of a close friend of mine are still unaccounted for. The nightmare might have ended, but its effect lingers on.

It has been a few days since the flames at Chawkbazar of Puran Dhaka or FR tower in Banani have subsided. But the sizzling wounds the tragedies have left in our hearts may never heal. The horrifying incident of Chawkbazar left a death toll that may be anywhere between 60 and 200, depending on the news source you choose to believe. The number, as great as it actually may be or as small as those in control would want you to believe, can’t possibly deduct any amount of horror we have experienced here. Parts of the inferno caught on footage have made our blood run cold. One can’t even begin to imagine how it would have been to be there in person.

Facts and Speculations

Let’s talk about the Chawkbazar tragedy. There have been copious amounts of speculation and debate over the specifics of the Chawkbazar tragedy. Everything from the source of the fire to the death toll possesses conflicting reports.

The general consensus is that the chemical warehouses in the area contributed to the spread of the fire. This was heavily denied by a minister and some of the local homeowners, who insist that a gas cylinder from a pickup truck triggered the fire. So much so, during a live report on the incident, a commotion of “Cylinder” chants was heard in the background. Although these parties denied the presence of chemical warehouses in the Churihatta area, none of them denied the presence of a perfume and cosmetics warehouse. I was under the strange impression that those things are made of dangerous and flammable chemicals. Especially after reports of them shooting in every direction like firecrackers during the incident.

Snide remarks aside, the Department of Explosives has confirmed that the fire did indeed have flammable chemicals at its source of spread. They also uncovered an intact gas cylinder from the pick-up truck where the fire allegedly began.

A game of shadows is evidently at play, but I don’t really want to get into that. I would rather center this discussion around the potential consequences of our acts as a nation, perhaps even a species, that have been exposed to us by this tragedy.

The Seneca Cliff: A recipe for disaster

The Seneca Cliff is a mathematical model proposed by a Florentine professor of Physical Chemistry, Ugo Bardi. The name of the model is a reference to Latin Philosopher Seneca the Younger and his verse from Letters to Lucilius, “The rise is gradual, the fall precipitous.” The model deals with problems in nature that experience decline at a considerably faster rate than growth, under some constraints. A very apt example of this would be pollution caused by humans, which is fated to doom us all rather quicker than we anticipate.

That might sound alien to our discussion, but it is frighteningly relatable with what we have faced and are yet to face. Bangladesh is one of the largest deltas in the world and is very vulnerable to Natural Disasters. About 80% of our lands are floodplains, meaning the imminent rising of the sea level due to climate change is going to drown a big part of the country. Against this geographical disadvantage, even if the defense of our coastal lines were formidable, which they are not, would fall short.

Moreover, Bangladesh is situated on the very tectonically active Himalayan orogenic belt. The possibility of a large-scale earthquake has been very real for a very long time now. We are completely helpless if such an event should occur, as Dhaka is the second densest city in the world. And the faulty construction practices in our country has resulted in a staggering 80% of our buildings being non-engineered. Meaning they are very likely to collapse if an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 or above should hit us.

The precipitous fall

All this information adds up to a simple but horrifying fact.

We are sitting on a network of ticking time bombs primed for a devastating explosion.

Be it natural or induced by man, any disaster of considerable scale holds the potential to obliterate most of us. And we have played the role of a catalyst in this, we have accelerated the process of our own doom.

The Chawkbazar tragedy is a cardinal precedent of what we have brought upon ourselves. The streets of Puran Dhaka are infamously narrow and congested. The lightest drizzle waterlogs the area, the slightest vehicular mishap blocks an entire avenue. Could you imagine the ramifications if a large-scale disaster should hit this place? You don’t really need to, the fire showed us. Say the chemical warehouses were as conveniently innocent in the disaster as claimants would have you believe. How much sense does it make to even have chemical warehouses in a residential area in the first place? Especially if said residential area is as prone to mishap as Puran Dhaka? And if chemicals really didn’t contribute to the incident, they were in the vicinity. And when they do indeed contribute to another fire (approved by all this time), do we expect even greater consequences?

The poorly planned construction, the dangerous chemicals stored near residential areas, the inadequate coastal defense, all adds up to one thing. The greed and negligence we have adopted as a nation. We have operated with personal profit in mind on every wake of our daily lives. We have made towering fortresses with matchsticks underneath. The smallest spark will set off a chain explosion that ends us all. And if the Chawkbazar Tragedy has taught us anything, we are running out of time to undo our end.

FR Tower Fire: The Red Flags that shouldn’t have been ignored

The Faruque-Rupayan Tower aka FR tower is a noticeable high rise building in Banani. Being constructed a long time ago, this building has sold their space to several corporate offices and restaurants. And so, it was normal that a good number of people would be in this building for work or recreational purposes.

However, the fire at the same FR Tower on Thursday, around 12.45 PM opened our eyes to a few major issues it was hiding all this time. As of today, 24 people have died and almost 100 others were injured, all because the owners didn’t care to give attention to safety guidelines or the Bangladesh building codes.

Illegal extensions and the first red flag

The FR tower builders first submitted its plan to Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) in 1995 and again in 2005. But what they left out is the fact that there was a four-floor extension. Although they got the approval to make this building 18-storey high, it was made to be of 22 floors with no following of safety regulations. And just like the recent fire, FR tower had also caught fire almost a decade ago. Even if this wasn’t enough to make the authorities conscious about its constructional defects, the floor extension apparently did come to the attention of RAJUK in 2007. But because proper action was not taken against anyone, this remained an issue for later. This was the first red flag, something that could have easily been stopped but wasn’t.

Lacking safety measures

In 2003, the Fire Prevention and Extinguishing act urged all high-rise buildings to send them a report within half a year of its announcement. The mighty Faruque-Rupayan Tower was one of them. But when the fire started last week, the iron fire exits were locked. This building had no sprinklers either. And the sad thing is, even if the fire exits were open, not all of the people in this building would be able to get out safely. Being only 0.6 metres and 1.2 metres in width, the only two fire exits there were in this 22-storey building wouldn’t have been enough to get everyone out safely.

“These incidents really don’t surprise you anymore. And the thing is, these don’t apply just for big buildings like this”

Said Marzan Kamal (Name has been changed) when asked about her opinion

She explained how the fire exits are always locked at most high-rise buildings nowadays.

And no one usually checks them until something bad happens.

After the incident, the fire department mentioned that the FR tower authorities were asked to join seminars on safety rules and recommended to work on safety measures surrounding the building. But they did not pay much attention to it. They also did not have their safety license, something that RAJUK needed to take care of right away.

It’s never too late to be safe

From the floor extension to not implementing safety guidelines to an overall poor construction of the building, there were countless red flags that the FR tower already had. But sadly, it isn’t until innocent people die a horrendous death that they actually start taking legal action. It is crucial for everyone keep their building’s fire safety measures in check. Just like this terrible incident, we shouldn’t wait till the damage has been done to be conscious.

Fire Safety 101- What to do if you’re ever in a fire

As we carry out our day-to-day activities, we take umpteen precautions to ensure our safety. We wear seatbelts when traveling, baby proof our homes and lock our windows and doors at night for safety. However, when it comes to battling against emergencies such as fire, we often fail to see the bigger picture. With failure of concerned authorities, a lack of awareness among the public and inadequate safety measures, the fire accidents have tripled in number within the last two decades in our country.

Thus, fire safety has become more important than ever. Let us see what we can do to avoid such tragedies.

Plan ahead

Families and offices must have a well-rehearsed emergency escape plan sorted out. Make a checklist that not only includes a list of necessities but also the list of helpful phone numbers available in the area to call as soon as an emergency fire situation arises.

Papers and valuables

Since the fire can take place any time, it is wise to keep copies of all your important documents. Along with these important documents, storing photographs and other valuables, which hold special sentiments, may also be useful.

Fire safety at workplace

When Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense (BFSCD) carried out a yearlong inspection, the results frightened us.Less than hundred establishments had tisfactory fire-safety initiatives out of the inspected 2612 establishments.

The alarming statistics show the urgency to ensure a workplace with extensive fire safety measures. This starts with eliminating all workplace hazards such as damaged electrical outlets, cables and cords as well as overloaded circuits. Smoke detectors, fire sprinkler systems, multiple fire extinguishers and help for disabled and older employees must be installed in every floor of the office. Employees must know about emergency exit routes, fire safety training, emergency procedures and using fire extinguishers. Regular fire drills are another way to prepare employees better. Smoking should take place outdoors only and cigarettes should be extinguished properly in sand-filled cans. It is also of utmost importance to instil confidence in employees to stay calm and not panic in case of fire emergencies; rather, everyone should deal with the situation by working together calmly.

House fires

A house fire can rapidly spread and prove to be deadly. To avoid this, it is important to install smoke detectors/alarms in the house and constantly check that they are in working order. Never smoke near curtains, sofas or other fabrics. Adults must also instruct kids to stay away from lighters, candles or matches, educate them about fire safety and teach them about the escape routes. Be extra astute when cooking, maintaining distance from fire. Moreover, switch off all electrical and heating equipment when not in use to avoid accidents.

A two-week workshop on ‘Fire Safety in Buildings’ was arranged last month (February,2019) for professors of BUET by the department of architecture. Similar such sessions, workshops and seminars should be arranged at residential buildings, universities and workplaces to increase awareness, educate people about fire safety and to equip them with necessary knowledge for emergencies.

Let us take these little steps and do our part to prepare ourselves before or during a fire and ensure our safety. In a country where we head out of our houses everyday not knowing if we will be able to return alive, is it not better to be safe than to be sorry?