Vol. 4 Num 327 Fri. April 30, 2004  
Front Page

Slum blaze kills 4 children
285 shanties razed in Keraniganj, over 2,000 homeless

A devastating fire at a slum in Keraniganj yesterday killed four children and razed all 285 tin-roofed houses on an acre, leaving about 2,000 people homeless amid scenes of shock.

The two-hour blaze, spotted shortly before 10:00am, broke out from an earthen burner in a house close to the only entry to the 29-year-old slum in Charkhejurbagh along the Buriganga river.

Officials of the civil defence and fire service department estimated over Tk 50 lakh in lost property.

Frightened residents including children trapped inside the enclosure, barely 10 metres from the riverbank, struggled to escape the fire but the small exit was not enough to allow hordes of people out at a time.

Many scurried in chaos to the rear of the rectangular slum and jumped seven metres into the adjacent canal.

"I was inside my house and heard people crying out - 'fire', 'fire'. I rushed out and saw the blaze advancing towards my house. I quickly grabbed my children and ran for cover," said Hasna, a 23-year-old mother of three.

Witnesses said the fire engulfed the entire slum in a few minutes, as a sudden blow of wind sent the flames spreading fast across the stuffy sheds.

Firemen from Sadarghat arrived on the scene in speedboats and hired trawlers about half an hour after the fire was spotted. They rushed to hose down the blaze with water jets from four pipelines linked to two boat-mounted water pumps. Thousands of onlookers crowded the site.

"If we had accessed the area by road, we could have saved 90 percent of the houses," Nurul Islam, deputy director of the Dhaka Division Fire Brigade, told The Daily Star on the scene.

"Bamboo and wooden houses are highly flammable. We were lucky to have the river close to the site, otherwise it could have been worse," Islam said.

Women went searching through the rubble in the wake of the inferno. Many said they could not trace their children even three hours after the fire.

Salma spent hours searching for her two children. "Help me find my daughters. I lost both," the 31-year-old, standing amid burnt remains of her house, appealed to this correspondent.

Next to her was Monwara Begum, distraught by the news that her two children went missing. She appealed to the firemen to find out her sons.

Monwara went to the nearby construction site to crush bricks, leaving her two under-seven sons back home.

In absence of healthcare services, hundreds of patients who suffered burns crossed the river to reach hospitals in the capital.

"I saw a man with burns in the neck, hand and chest crying out for help. Another man helped him ride a boat to the other side of the river," said Halim, a local resident who aided people in escaping the fire.

The owner of the land, Nazir Hossain, who built the slum to make a living from renting out the shanties to mostly day labourers, was not found there. His younger brother Mohammad Baby and son Shawkat Hossain said the owner stayed home, ill with asthma and backbone ache.

Nazir Hossain collected about Tk 70,000 in house rent a month from the slum. Still, Mohammad Baby says his brother cannot afford compensation to the victims.

"The local people will be providing shelter, food and drugs for the victims until the government comes up with relief," Baby said.

Until 3:00pm yesterday, no government officials visited the victims. Local youngsters claimed that the ruling BNP's student chapter, Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, provided meals for all victims. But there was no sign of food arriving for the victims until 4:

00pm and no medical team was found nearby.

The dead are Bristy, 7, Aakash, 3, Sagor, 5, and Bristi, 5. Many burn patients were treated in Mitford Hospital.

Firemen douse a fire that killed four children and razed 285 tin-roofed houses in a slum in Keraniganj yesterday. PHOTO: Syed Zakir Hossain