Monday, June 14, 2010


To get to Nimtoli you start out at the Chankharpul intersection and head towards the Central Jail on Nazimuddin road. About fifty feet down, there is a road on the left, lined with paper recycling stores. Follow this road for a quarter mile, and you will see a smaller alley to the right. You cannot miss it because of all the black banners hanging from everywhere. This is Nimtoli.

The fire in Nimtoli burned on the night of June 1, two weeks ago, at the T intersection at the end of this alley. It took 142 lives. Many others are still in the hospital.

In the past, I have visited this area, so full of life with a warm neighborhood atmosphere, and taken pictures. Look here, here and here.

However, today it was quiet. People tried to go about their business - kids walked to school, store owners opened up shop, small factories hummed - but the laughter and carefree life that once characterized this area was missing.

I tried to piece together what had happened.

On the third floor of a multi-story apartment building, a dinner party was celebrating the engagement of Runa to Jamil, a ceremony called "Panchini" in Bangla. For the Panchini feast, a chef was cooking old Dhaka style food in large cauldrons outside the entrance of the building. This was around 9pm on June 1st.

Just inside the building (on the ground floor, which is a large garage) was a cache of highly flammable chemicals, used by a nearby factory. Between the cooking and the chemicals was the wall of the building.

As the food cooked - one cauldron on a large gas stove, the other on a large wood-fired stove, both open-air - the walls of the garage heated. Eventually the chemicals caught fire. As fire flared out, two motorcycles parked in front of the building quickly caught fire, as did the large electric transformers overhead.

The fire spread very quickly because the chemicals exploded and flew all over. The house across the street on the south was engulfed. The streets were on fire, preventing people from escaping.

As I looked inside a burned barber shop, I was introduced to Mr. Syed Maqbul Ali, whose wife Fauzia Begum perished in the fire. His flat on top of the barber's is across the street of the six-story apartment on the west.

Mr. Ali showed me inside his flat. He was watching TV when he heard the transformers outside the multi-story building explode. First he ran into his son's room which faced this building. By this time, flying chunks of chemicals, on fire, had entered this room through the window and the room was on fire. He shut the room door and was able to run down the stairs and escape in the nick of time.

His wife, who had gone to attend the party, was not so lucky. She asphyxiated with many others. His two children - a son and a daughter - survived because they were not in the neighborhood.

As I talked to people there, I heard similar stories over and over. A woman, whose brother owned a grocery store, told me that he was found dead - from asphyxiation - over the narrow drain between his store and the street. The owners of a Bakorkhani store had shuttered themselves in when the fire started thinking they would be safe. Instead they perished. Six people from a tin shed house died on a narrow path from their door to the main road, because the road was on fire and there was no escape route. However, the tin shed next to them had an escape route into another alley and those inhabitants all survived. And so on. It is absolutely, totally, heartbreaking.

A lot of things are being written about this fire. The blame game goes on - the narrow streets, perhaps blocking the fire trucks, the person who had stored the chemicals, all the small factories in the area - all the experts are going at it full swing.

Clearly there are no easy answers. You cannot simply shut down all factories in old Dhaka. You cannot make narrow streets wider.

Yet it seems to me that some simple knowledge of the flammability of the material, and transmitting this knowledge to the chefs, could have prevented this disaster. Often these chemicals are imported from China with signs written in Chinglish. If there were large warning signs on the containers in Bangla, could this disaster have been prevented?

And surely new buildings need better to live up to better safety standards.

An ounce of prevention - educating people about disaster risks, and being alert about dangerous situations - could probably go a long way towards preventing the next disaster.

In the meantime the people of Nimtoli try to piece their lives back together. Mr Moqbul's daughter is engaged. But now is not the time to think about his daughter's marriage, he says. He mentioned something about how his wife ran the household, and then seemed at a loss, perhaps trying to sort out how he would cope. And he spoke proudly of his son who has just passed his SSC and started Intermediate classes.

[Update 15 June 2010: About the wedding: days after the fire, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh announced that since Runa's mother had died in the fire and she was left without any guardian, the PM was going to essentially act like guardian and host the wedding at her official residence. As a result, Runa and her beau, her sister Ratna and her fiance, and one other affected couple were married in the Prime Minister's residence at the same time.]

The multi-story building where it all started on the third floor.

View from the top looking east. Multi-story is at the edge of the bottom-left of this photo. No one survived in the house across the street (on right of photo, with the corrugated tin sheets on top.)

Entrance to the multi-story where the cooking was taking place. The sign forbids entrance without permission from authorities.

Burned motorcycles...

...and a rickshaw van's saddle.

The Bakorkhani shop. They shuttered themselves in thinking they could escape, but perished instead.

The tin sheds. Inhabitants of the one on the left (now collapsed) escaped. Ones from the right (with window) were stuck in the narrow path leading out of their house into the road. The brick wall around the left house was of course standing.

The grocery store. Woman said she is the sister of the owner, who was found dead at the drain in front of the store.

Remains of curry and dal at the restaurant next door.

Remains of ceiling fan in the restaurant.

Barber shop downstairs from Syed Moqbul Ali's flat.

Onlookers looking into the barber shop.

Moqbul's son's room.

Mr. Syed Moqbul Ali. The third floor of the six-story is across the street and to his left on the photo. His wife perished at the corner next to that window.