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    Volume 9 Issue 24| June 11, 2010|

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When All Hell Broke Loose

SHAHEEN MOLLAH, a staff reporter of The Daily Star, relates hispersonal experiences while covering the tragedy at Nimtoli.

Photo: Anisur Rahman

I was at the rooftop canteen of our office in Karwan Bazar, when at around 9:00 pm we saw a red glow in the distant sky that seemed like a fire. I called Abdur Rashid, deputy director of fire service of Dhaka division, up and he confirmed that a fire had broken out in Old Dhaka. The fire fighters were already on their way there. Immediately, I took a bus to Bangabazar and, following the crowd, tried to find out the exact spot of the incident.

Passing through Bongshal Thana and Nobab Katara, I reached Nimtoli and saw huge flames like that of a volcano burning, accompanied by a loud clattering noise on the roofs and top floors of some buildings. Police and local volunteers had already set up barricades at the entrance of the alleys and were not allowing anyone in. The fire brigade trucks were placed at different points in the main roads, as the alleys were too narrow for the heavy vehicles. The water hoses had to be taken a long way from there to the fire spot. Fire-service personnel told me that there were about 18 units at work.

Near the barricade, I spoke to a middle-aged woman named Rahima Begum, holding a baby on her lap, crying. In a choked voice, she told me that she was feeding her child at her home on the fifth floor of a six-storied building, when she heard a loud bang. Her house was three to four houses away from where the fire originated. Some parts of her house were burnt as large balls of fire dropped on the roof and melted the plastic water tanks. The flames leapt up high in the sky and showered down on different places, she said. While running to safety, she saw seven or eight houses burning.

Photo: Anisur Rahman

The whole area was in chaos and the sound of people shouting and wailing -- “nai nai (nothing is left)”, “pani shesh hoye gelo (there is no water left)”, “keu benche nai (nobody is alive)”, “benche ache benche ache, hospitale niye jao (they are alive, take them to the hospital)” filled the air. I also heard people saying that gas lines had leaked, electrical wires were torn and the blaze was spreading everywhere. Near Sheikh Borhanuddin Post Graduate College, I introduced myself as a reporter to the fire fighters and they allowed me to enter the alley only at my own risk. As I entered the alley, I saw people carrying the dead and the injured. I immediately called Dhaka Medical College Hospital and they informed me that they had already received dead bodies of two children, two women and two men's and at least 50 injured patients.
When I reached the fire, I saw three houses, one five-storied and two two-storied buildings still burning, especially the top floors and the roofs. By 9:55 pm, the fire brigade said that they would be able to bring the fire under control within half an hour. As I moved on, I saw the dead body of a child lying in front of a fruit shop. A local volunteer recognised the child and lamented that the child had come to buy fruits with his uncle.

The people around me said that the fire had spread because two transformers had burst in front of a five-storied building. However, Abdur Rashid, who was leading the fire team told me in a hushed voice that such a huge fire could not have occured from the explosion of transformers. From his experience, he felt that there must be a chemical factory involved. With this lead, I spoke to the local volunteers, trying to find evidence of a chemical warehouse. But they said there were none and held on to their assumption about the transformers.

Abdur Rashid and his fire fighters told me that it was very unlikely that people would still be alive inside the buildings that were still burning. From all sides the pipes were spraying water at the burning houses. Local volunteers were helping the fire fighters.

By 10:15 pm, five dead bodies were recovered from the five-storied building. Some people tried to identify them with the help of their torchlights since the bodies were still recognisable. The fire service said that they were able to save many people but many of them were injured from the first few floors of that building. It was so hot that although we were all soaked, we still felt the heat. Smoke and ashes flew everywhere and settled on our wet faces and eyelids, making it difficult to see. The men who were working inside the buildings were getting sick from suffocation and heat. I saw many fire fighters being helped outside the building by their co-workers.

As I moved forward I came near a stationary shop with its shutters open. In the dim light of the torch, the outlines of two bodies were visible. The fire fighters stopped us from going inside as there may still have been remnants of the burning flames trapped inside the heaps of paper and stationary. A little way up, I saw a small bakarkhani shop, where six dead bodies were scattered around the stove. Near the shop a boy named Shabuj (who was out during the fire) was standing by two tin-shed houses and crying. The houses were burnt down to the height of my chest; no tin sheds were visible; only charcoal, burnt brick and pieces of tin were scattered all over the place. I tried to get inside but felt the heat trapped inside the broken bricks.

The boy crouched on the rubble with his head in his hands and indicated a room where he said all his family members lay dead. As I came out, I saw two or three excited men trying to keep the fire fighters from removing the bodies. I met a fellow correspondent in the alley and in order to share news, we stood on an elevated place, as there was ankle-deep mud and puddles of ash everywhere. I felt I was standing on something uneven. Then someone threw light the spot and told us that we were standing on a dead body covered in ash. It was in fact a huge drain totally blocked by debris. We got down and the fire service took out the dead body and covered it in a plastic bag.

Wherever I looked, people were bringing out dead bodies from the buildings. I walked towards the six bodies brought from inside the tin-shed building. A man, around 22, was standing silently nearby. As I could not see the dead bodies clearly, I asked others to flash lights on them. The man looked at me a couple of times, so I tried to talk to him. He asked me coldly who I was. When I introduced myself as a reporter, he grabbed me by the collar and tried to strangle me, continued to kick me at the same time. Two other men joined him and started to hit me, shouting in anger, “Our loved ones are dead and they have come here to count bodies!”





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