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Special Feature

Aftermath of the Nimtoli Tragedy

Elita Karim

After the tragedy, a black flag now hangs in Nimtoli. Photo: Anisur Rahman

It is almost lunchtime and the crowd starts to thin at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH). It is slightly more than 36 hours since the inferno hit Nimtoli in the Chankharpul area, an old part of town, claiming 119 lives. The survivors and their relatives at DMCH seem to be calm, slowly getting used to the regular flashes of the cameras, random questions asked by reporters and also, complete strangers who have come to look at the partially burnt survivors. Clearly, they find it very difficult to believe that such an incident had taken place only a couple of days ago in their very own city.

A 119 people were burnt to crisp, while a couple of 100 more were left injured, on the night of June 3, 2010, when an inferno spread over homes and streets in Nimtoli. People watching the news on television cringed at the sight of the black, charred bodies of men, women and children being brought out of burnt buildings. Painful screams accompanied the blazing night as family members of the dead went crazy moving from one burnt body to another, trying to identify parents, children, friends and other loved ones. One parent heard the screams of his son, begging him to save him; this was while being gobbled up by flames, triggered further by dangerous chemicals and flammable products stored in the warehouses and factories in the ground floor of residential buildings.

Locals join the Fire Service, trying to carry out rescue operations. Photo: Anisur Rahman

As 19-year-old Runa Akhter was getting ready in a nearby parlour, she, along with her sister Ratna and cousin Alamgir saw the flames. Little did they know that their home and their family members inside were, by then, burnt to the ground. Their brother Faisal too survived as he was on the street to welcome the guests to the engagement party, where Runa was to be betrothed to 28-year-old Jamil of Hossaini Dalan. Because the family traditions do not allow the groom to be present at his engagement parties, Jamil was home, while his mother and other family members were at Runa's home to carry out the betrothal rituals. Not a single survivor was found from the 5-storey building. Runa lost her mother Fatema, aunts Afroza and Sajeda, cousins Jyotsna, Anika, Anik and Sayem and also Jyotsna's son Mukit. The groom, Jamil lost his mother Shahzadi, aunts Wahida, Waqar Fatema, Fatema Begum, brother Shimul Hossain, Shimul's three-year old son Kumail, and relatives Hasan Ali Sirazi, Nusrat Begum, and Afroza Begum.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a commendable gesture, announced that her office would arrange for the weddings of both the sisters.

Arelative feeds lunch to 27-year-old Mamun as he finally is able to sit up in bed. Burnt from his waist down, Mamun broke his legs and arms as he jumped from the top floor of his building to escape the fire. "I was outside just roaming about after dinner," he says. "When I suddenly saw the fire, I ran back and ran up the stairs to save my relatives who were still there inside the building." Mamun gasps for air while he speaks, but doesn't shed any tears. When asked if he had lost family members in the inferno, Mamun stays silent and goes into a daze. He has lost his mother, aunts and cousins and is simply too tired to cry anymore.

The patients at the hospital receive free medication and care, along with meals, not only for the victims but also their relatives who spend the days and nights with them. "Out of the 41 patients that we have at the hospital, 14 have been sent to the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), says Dr Samantalal Sen, project director of the Burn and Plastic Surgery unit at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. "Three of our patients are now in the ICU and are badly burnt."

The insides of a charred building in Nimtoli. Photo: Anisur Rahman

It is sad but true that only a tragedy of this scale makes us think about safety and security of the regular people. Brigadier General Abu Nayeem Mohammed Shahidullah, Director General, Fire Service mentions four points that the authorities are now looking into as precautions for the future. "We will clean off Old Dhaka," he says. "All the unauthorised warehouses and godowns that are currently operating in the older part of town. We had actually begun a mobile court operation on April 13 this year to close down these factories. However, after the Nimtoli fire tragedy, we are strengthening this operation." Referring to the five illegal warehouses that were closed down last week, Abu Nayeem is confident that a lot will be achieved if the authorities continue this effort. In fact as the drives against illegal chemical factories got stronger last week, locals had also joined in with the authorities, searching for warehouses and closing them down.

Abu Nayeem also speaks of introducing hydrant points all over the country, not only inside buildings, malls and homes, but also at different points on the streets. "This decision was recently taken after an Inter-ministral Coordination meeting for Disaster Management took place," he explains. "The idea of having hydrant points all over the area is quite common in foreign countries. We should implement this in our country as well."

Nothing beats building awareness amongst the locals. According to Brigadier General Abu Nayeem Mohammed Shahidullah, DG, Fire Service, at least 200 locals in each ward will be trained to save themselves and others from fire and other natural disasters. "They will be given basic training in fire fighting, first aid and searching for survivors," says Abu Nayeem.

During the Nimtoli fire, the narrow roads and alleys had prevented the fire service to immediately carry out their rescue mission, which is why Abu Nayeem says that they have imported special vehicles into the country -- Two Wheeler Water Mists. "Not only in the old part of town, but we have very narrow roads in other parts of the country as well, which sometimes prevents the fire service from carrying out their rescue operations," explains Abu Nayeem. "These vehicles will help us move faster."

Dr Samantalal Sen

The Nimtoli inferno still remains a mystery, as to how the fire had started. Iqbal Khan Chowdhury, Additional Home Secretary, and the head of the three-member probe committee formed to find out how the fire in Nimtoli had started, says that it would take a little more time to produce the final report. "We are still waiting for the individual reports and the chemical reports," says Chowdhury. Because of the fire, many cannot be located still, he adds. "For instance, we are still trying to locate the Baburchi (cook) who was cooking at the engagement party," he says. "To make things worse, the owner of the godown in question cannot be traced either."

Many still speculate about how the fire had actually started in Nimtoli. In the beginning, it was said that a transformer had burst, which led to the fire. Yet another speculation is that the heat from the kitchens belonging to the home where the engagement party was taking place might have initially triggered the fire. However, Chowdhury thinks otherwise and says that anything could have started the fire. "The transformer never started the fire. The fire probably started from the cooking fire," says Chowdhury. "Or the fire from a lit stray cigarette might have started the inferno as well. Anything is possible. However, what spread the fire were the chemicals in the warehouses."

Survivors remember the fire as something alive, following them everywhere and literally running after them. "In fact, if the chemicals were not there, the fire would not have spread the way it did. The chemicals played a huge role in making it worse," says Chowdhury. In fact the probe committee has found that most victims died inhaling the toxic gases emitted from burning chemicals.

Especially in the older part of town, the tradition of running illegal warehouses, plastic factories or renting out rooms in residential buildings to tenants as godowns is an age-old practice. In spite of the fact that this is illegal, they are hardly ever kept a check on by the authorities. Rokon-ud-Dowlah, Deputy Magistrate, Rajuk, however, explains how Rajuk is not to be blamed for the illegal warehouses and godowns in this case. "Rajuk has certain plans drawn out, regarding warehouses, godowns, factories, etc," says Dowlah. "These plans are for both the commercial warehouses and residential ones as well. Regarding the ones in Nimtoli, these warehouses and godowns were never drawn out in the Rajuk plans and hence are definitely illegal." Asked if Rajuk plans to tear down all the illegal structures, especially in the older part of town, Dowlah says that Rajuk is definitely on the look out for illegal structures to close them down all over the city. "However, it is very difficult when it comes to the older part of town," says Dowlah. "The way the areas are planned and also with the large number of warehouses that the buildings actually host, it does get difficult to locate all of them quickly."

Two critically injured patients inside the ICU of the DMCH. Two of the Nimtoli inferno survivors. Photos: Zahedul I Khan


Nimtoli is now a city of tragedy. It is of course, a lot calmer than it was five days ago. The five-storey-building, where the families of the bride and groom to be were celebrating, is merely a plot of land now. Parents, disoriented by grief, are seen calling out names of their dead children and grandchildren. Now and then, a young man in his 20s comes by and stands in front of the remnants of his burnt home and cries like a baby for his mother, siblings, aunts and cousins. Between his sobs, he wishes he had never left home right before the fire had started. Maybe he could have saved his mother. Or maybe he could have perished along with her. Anything would be better than living with a nightmare, which will be recurring throughout his life. As the victims of the fire prepare themselves to live with their loss, the nation prays that such a disaster does not befall on anyone ever again.


Most of the dead have been buried at the Azimpur Graveyard. Photo: Anisur Rahman


This child has survived the Nimtoli inferno, but has been scarred for life. Photo: zahedul i khan Runa Akhter. Photo: Anisur Rahman


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