We no longer want to be memory pictures in Bangladesh!

The only limit to height is our capacity to maintain the safety of people in all aspects associated with the design, build and occupancy of multi-storey or tall buildings.

5 mins read
Firefighters use a fire ladder to extract victims during rescue operations following a fire in a commercial building that killed at least 43 people, in Dhaka, on February 29, 2024. (AFP)

Dhaka has already become one of the least liveable cities in the world due to a number of reasons, and recurring fire incidents are not improving its appeal. Residents of the capital city still shudder remembering the Nimtoli tragedy in 2010 followed by the fire incidents in Churihatta and Banani FR Tower in 2019.

The fire at Green Cozy Cottage on Bailey Road on 29 February 2024 night was the latest of these incidents, but people did not know if it was the last, because they could not understand to whom they could turn to ensure that such an easily preventable disaster does not repeat. 

The inferno left killing 46 people and quickly spread to other floors, trapping dozens inside.

Famed philosopher Hagel’s words are of grandness, “The one thing one learns from history is that nobody ever learns anything from history” have again come to us in tune; accurate in pitch on that night again. We can create situations for bringing about catastrophes; but not delights. That stirs us overmuch to speak. The dreadful inferno that hit the building is not fortuity; it is purely a slaying. It is covetousness; and it is extreme gluttony of some highwaymen of the netherworld.

The death toll from this horrific blaze that ripped through the Bailey Road building including some who leapt to their deaths, as firefighters combed through the charred shell of the building. Their deaths have made us accused.

Flames tore through the building trapping hundreds of people. Some of those stuck inside made it to safety by sliding down cables on the side of the building, but as shocked onlookers watched, others took their chances and jumped in a bid to escape the smoke and heat.

Fire was brought under control after two hours of frantic efforts; 21 people injured and 12 fire service units along with Ansar, BGB, and police worked to douse the fire.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed her anger over the absence of fire exits in the building on Bailey Road in the capital and instructed the relevant authorities to raise awareness among the public to prevent further loss of life in such tragedies.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch as trapped people screamed for help from smoke-logged floors. Firefighters tackled the blaze by water, lowering ropes to help people escape, while rescuers on long ladders smashed through windows.

Fire disasters regularly hit Bangladesh’s major cities where safety standards are notoriously lax. The government authorities have ordered a probe into the incident to examine claims that the building lacked fire equipment, its fire exits were inadequate and it had been illegally extended. Experts have said inspections of buildings in the city frequently found fire stairs blocked with stored goods and exit doors locked.

Videos shared on social media have showed people attempting to escape the flames by edging down a precarious rope on the outside of the building. Several people trapped inside the building posted pictures to social media showing people covering their faces to escape the smoke-filled interior.

Firefighters on long ladders smashed windows to create escape routes. More than one hour after the blaze erupted people could still be seen on the floors desperately waving for help amid clouds of black smoke.

Rescue crews were soon discovering bodies and carrying them out one after the other in white bags. Some people told of risky escapes.

Witness Sajib Hasan said he heard people shouting for help from the windows of the upper floors. Heavy smoke deterred efforts by responders to get close to them, but Hasan said he watched at least a dozen people get rescued. Firefighters were shattering the building’s glass walls to free toxic gas.

A Facebook Live video taken by Mohsin Hamid showed five people scaling down from windows while burnt building materials fell around them. Many more were also admitted to the burn unit at DMCH and other hospitals, who are currently undergoing treatment.

We are devastated! We are unable to bear the loss of so many lives. Words fail to express our sympathy for the families of victims. We pray for those who are languishing at the hospital beds to recuperate soon and come back to normal life.

According to a 2012 study by Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, most high-rise buildings in the capital have inadequate fire safety measures. “We found only two buildings fully compliant,” BUET professor Mehedi Ahmed Ansari said of the survey on 112 buildings, adding that some they looked at were little more than death traps.

Fire safety measures in the building were very weak. There were no sprinklers. Fire exits existed only in name.

Witnessing flames ravaging the building, dying the people helplessly and seeing the injured people groaning in the hospitals are not endurable.

The building, as it is reported, simply does not comply with safety and health regulations. The fires that ravaged the area, claiming so many precious lives and forcing thousands more to evacuate, destroyed the beautiful landscape.

As the embers smolder, the reality of what happened is being laid bare. This video captures some of the extent of the damage and it is harrowing.

The building is not a reinforced fire-resistant concrete hull construction. At the time, no emergency lights, posted in fire alarms, fire sprinkler systems, or emergency exits were fitted to the building.  There is a solitary stairway, but it is a constrict stairwell, which runs the full height of the building.

Why fire and safety must rule?

We must pay great attention to addressing all the drivers for all buildings, and seem to ignore all those elements that act as constraints. Yet history provides us with a long list of disasters involving buildings or tall buildings. We also witnessed a most painful example in the FR Tower fire in Banani area, Dhaka in the past.

After the Bailey Road inferno, a long and detailed investigations will establish its causes, one obvious conclusion can be drawn without having to wait for such investigation that it is a man-made cataclysm.

Solutions generated to enable height, such as, staged emergency evacuation and defend in place, do not seem to be valid anymore when large internal fires seem to be an unavoidable feature of the architecture of modern buildings or tall buildings.

So, the only limit to height is our capacity to maintain the safety of people in all aspects associated with the design, build and occupancy of multi-storey or tall buildings.

Fire Service Department has to be revamped with modernised equipment like the developed countries…. Fire protection systems in the buildings have to be re-evaluated to put them aright. The present building laws shall have to be amended, if need be, and ensure rigorous enforcement of them.

Dubai is set to introduce a new level of futuristic firefighting, with flying forces, specially trained and equipped with jetpacks. Designed by New Zealand manufacturer Martin Aircraft Company, the jetpacks not only shoot rescue missions straight to the relevant balcony from outside, but will also manoeuvre heavy equipment and assess heat sources using thermal imaging cameras.

Fire for fulfilling the lust of some arrant people for the high-rise buildings must not take away innocent lives…

We are born and have to die, but not in this colossally helpless way of life. We want to reject this Death Valley in Bangladesh. We can’t play foul games repeatedly with people’s life. Today, we have not come here to weep, but we are here to punish those beastly fellows … We wish to listen some songs of awakening. Dante’s poem, ‘Langdon’ has now reminded, is not so much about the misery of hell as it is about the power of the human spirit to endure any challenge, no matter how daunting.

We no longer want to be memory pictures! We want to be seen as the stars in life so long we live.

Anwar A. Khan

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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