The frightful inferno hit again in Bangladesh

by Anwar A Khan

“The one thing one learns from history is that
nobody ever learns anything from history.” – Hagel

Dhaka’s Banani, the area where the fire broke out, is a busy commercial hub with multi-storey buildings housing offices, universities and restaurants. According to media reports, the fire broke out around 1:00pm on Thursday, the 28 March. Since then, the building was surrounded by onlookers and volunteer helpers.

Hagel’s words of grandness have again come to us in tune; accurate in pitch on that day again. We can create situations for bringing about catastrophes; but not delights. That stirs us overmuch to speak. The dreadful inferno that hit the 22 storeyed skyscraper named FR Tower at Banani Commercial Area, Dhaka 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 a Bangladesh skyscraper rose to 26, including some who leapt to their deaths, as firefighters combed through the charred shell of the building.

Flames tore through the building trapping hundreds of office workers. 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. A Sri Lankan citizen identified as Niras Chandra also was declared dead at Kurmitola General Hospital. Officer-in-Charge (OC) of Cantonment police station Kazi Shahan Haque confirmed the matter saying the victim fell off the building while trying to escape the fire. More than 70 people were hospitalised in the wake of the inferno.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered to watch as trapped workers screamed for help from smoke-logged floors. Firefighters backed by military specialists -- some in helicopters -- tackled the blaze, 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 skyscraper 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.

The FR Tower building reportedly consists of offices and a restaurant. 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. Authorities said that six people died as a result of falling. Several people trapped inside the building posted pictures to social media showing people covering their faces to escape the smoke-filled interior.

Helicopters joined 22 firefighting units that worked with the army, navy, air force and police to battle the blaze as smoke billowed into the sky to douse the terrible fire. The blaze comes a month after a massive inferno killed 71 people in an old neighbourhood at Chawkbazar of the Dhaka city. Critics at the time blamed poor enforcement of safety regulations in one of the world's most densely packed cities.

Fire service officials have said a warehouse of deodorant and granular plastic in one of the five floors at FR Tower that caught fire fuelled that inferno, which took more than 12 hours to control.
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 13th and 14th floors desperately waving for help amid clouds of black smoke.

A top fire official said the flames had been stopped from spreading to adjoining buildings. "Teams have entered the building and they are scouring the floors for any remaining victims. The building did not have firefighting equipment," said Lieutenant Colonel Julfikar Rahman of the Dhaka fire service told reporters.

Rescue crews were soon discovering bodies and carrying them out one after the other in white bags. Some workers told of risky escapes. A man who gave his name as Jico said he had been working on the 19th floor. "The fire started in a restaurant on the sixth floor. We ran to the roof as soon as we heard about it and then used a wooden plank to get over to the next building."

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 Roy Pinaki showed five people scaling down from windows while burnt building materials fell around them. One person slipped from what appeared to be a rope that people were using to escape, bounced off utility wires and fell to the ground. A 35-year-old man, identified as Abdullah Al Faruk, an MBA student at Dhaka University, was declared dead after he was rushed to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). Many more
were also admitted to the burn unit at DMCH and other hospitals, who are currently undergoing treatment.

Parvez Sazzad was reported dead at a Banani clinic. Maksudur, Munir and Mamun were declared dead on arrival by doctors at United Hospital. Senior Executive Sazzadur Rahman Shuvo of the hospital confirmed the matter. A woman identified as Amina Yeasmin died of her injuries at Apollo Hospital.

Two more bodies were brought out from the building around 6:30 pm after the fire was put out. The authorities concerned confirmed that the Air Force, Bangladesh Navy, police and the Fire Service Department have worked together to rescue the people inside.

A helicopter carries water to drop on the burning office building as Bangladesh’s firefighters on ladders work to extinguish the blaze frantically on that day.

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. Fire department director Shakil Newaj said they had warned the FR Tower management to improve fire safety standards, but they did not pay heed.

With the world’s urban population expected to surpass six billion by 2045 the pressure to build upwards results in ever more, ever taller buildings. Given the potential death toll and frequency of skyscraper fires, the stakes are high for getting both the architecture and fire-safety procedures right.

The ring draws our attention as powerfully as the earnest intensity in his eyes, a reminder that—not unlike the “Fast & Furious” franchise in which Johnson figures so prominently—this story is all about…

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

Bejesus damn it, I am so tired of hearing the truth from all corners and the newspaper reports and never anything is done to prevent it from re-occurring by the concerned authorities.

Nobody is there to check conformity to safety standards when being built. High rises like this one lines the pocket of fat owners of the buildings and contractors and makes locals falsely feel contemporary. This is a regrettable waste of money for avarice. With the same investment, a whole community of family housing with recreations can be built in which human connections can be broadened.

The building, as it is reported, simply does not comply with safety and health regulations. The fires that ravaged the area last week, claiming several 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.

Through this, hopefully, a basis can be set for a broader struggle against exploitation and all forms of oppression; and for human liberation in which no-one lacks the basics of life such as housing, water, and sanitation.

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.

Initial efforts led to the evacuation of so many people before the heat and smoke became too overwhelming. But the conditions then within the building made it impossible to continue. Many remaining stranded people climbed onto balconies for air. A helicopter rescue was attempted but the heat, smoke and inadequate landing space prevented helicopters from reaching the roof in time. Even if landing space had been available, the strong heat and dense smoke made approaching the building by helicopter extremely hazardous. Despite the best efforts of rescue personnel and witnesses, who shouted and created signs instructing people to remain calm.

By the fire subsided, it had engulfed all flammables and simply burnt itself out. Medical teams, fire crews and police were then able to enter the office towers and search for survivours. At the time, this had been the greatest death toll in any high-rise building fire. Death toll estimates range from 25 to a higher figure.

Why safety must rule as tall buildings aim higher?

Actually, our planning should include safety considerations, not just engineering capability. Technical challenges grow, technology evolves to meet the needs, reaches its limits, and the cycle begins again. The noted structural engineer Richard Tomasetti noted in 2013’s The Tall Buildings Reference Book that “limitations are best perceived as a function of time”. This suggests that, over time, structural engineering can match any desired height given the right innovations.

The approach to firefighting has been the most obvious constraint. Buildings more than seven or eight storeys tall are beyond the reach of a typical firefighter’s ladder. The requirement for suppressing fires has to be designed within the building itself.

Some of the strategies developed for skyscrapers included compartmentalisation (containing and preventing the spread of fire), protected stairways for escape and for fire fighter access, a defend-in-place strategy, and the concept of phased rather than simultaneous evacuation of the building.

Stairs, lifts, bathrooms, and a myriad of services supplying power, fresh air, data, as well as key life safety systems are often not to be bundled together in the building’s core.

The past 6 decades have seen extraordinary advances in technology. These include the development of structural systems, high-strength concrete and steel, vertical transportation systems, and sophisticated glass and steel façades coupled with computational methods and smart technologies.

Software and computing power has enabled more accurate analysis of structures and statistical analysis as well as higher degrees of coordination of the different systems that serve the building and its occupants.

There are many interesting technologies developing to service super-tall structures. For example, distributing water from the base to the top of a super-tall tower would be unacceptably costly using today’s technology.

The concept study NEXT Tokyo 2045 proposed for Tokyo Bay – which proposes the world’s first mile-high skyscraper looks to decouple from urban utilities to avoid pumping water from the ground up. Instead, the design team proposes using the building’s surface area to harvest water from clouds and rain.

The façade of such buildings also offers enormous surface area for generating solar-powered energy for local use.

Smart technology for elevators that continuously review building traffic patterns and optimise traffic handling is one of the latest evolutions of elevator design. These would allow double and triple-decker elevators to work effectively.

Wright’s vision for quintuple-decker lifts (albeit in his proposal was powered by atomic energy) has become potentially viable due to the developments in both hardware and software.

Life in the high winds

The behaviour and expectations of occupants is likely to evolve owing to the physics of height. Wind, often regarded as the main structural foe, is an inescapable phenomenon that effects not only the structural response, but also occupant comfort and the level of engagement with the outdoors.

Wind hitting the building can cause uplift and areas of negative pressure that effects the permeability of the façade. Occupant controlled windows, balconies and outdoor living as we know it become untenable and a greater reliance is given to mechanical systems for ventilation and temperature control. Buildings can be designed so that wind can pass through, and the energy harnessed and controlled.

Fire and safety

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

After FR Tower was ravaged by fire, 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.

Fire safety in high rise buildings (a constraint) has not received sufficient attention. This has put society in a position to challenge the competency of those involved in guaranteeing the fire safety of tall buildings.

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

It is not certain we have solutions that will guarantee the safety of people occupying a tall building when we have no capacity to evacuate if a fire was to propagate internally or externally. Let’s not forget that disasters can be one of the most effective means to put a break to progress.

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 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.

Fire for fulfilling the lust of some arrant people of the high-rise buildings must not take away innocent lives…. 21 people died in the road crashes on the same day as the newspaper reports say. Road accidents must not snatch away our life in such bestial manners.

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 ….

-The End –

The writer is a senior citizen of Bangladesh, writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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