We have all been here before. Nearly a week after the event, the authorities are still struggling to determine the cause of a devastating fire that killed at least 45 people, including nine firefighters, and injured more than 100 others at a shipping container storage depot, as experts raise concerns over the country's industrial safety standards.
Efforts to fully extinguish the fire at the BM Inland Container Depot, a Dutch-Bangladesh joint venture near the country's main Chittagong Seaport, continued for nearly four days after it broke out around midnight Saturday, June 4, following explosions in a container full of chemicals. An initial "Beirut-like" explosion was felt as far as 4 kilometres (2 1/2 miles) away, officials and local media said.
Authorities said there were more than 4,000 containers at the depot, of which about 1,000 were filled with materials including chemicals.
After 86 hours, the devastating fire was finally doused, said Lt Col Ariful Islam, commander of the 18th Brigade of Bangladesh Army's 24th Infantry Division. The fire came under control 60 hours after it broke out, the Army official said a day earlier.
"It's just the smoke coming out. As soon as water hits the garment products in the containers, smoke is coming out. We visited the entire depot and did not find any more bodies," he said."You saw a shed and many containers burnt down in the depot. Using cranes, we're removing those. It's impossible to say right now that if there's anything else underneath it."
Fire Service and Civil Defence officials said the depot had around 27 chemical-laden containers, said Md Akhtaruzzaman, fire service assistant director.
Of those, 15 containers with hydrogen peroxide had exploded following the fire. The remaining 12 are still inside the depot premises, and were shifted to a safe distance of the compound to avoid further fires.
"We've lost our fellow firefighters in the fire as the depot authorities did not inform us about the chemical-laden containers," Anisur Rahman, deputy director of Fire Service and Civil Defence, said at a press briefing in front of the depot.
Firefighters had responded to an initial incident of a fire apparently in a section of the depot where garments for export were stored. That was around 9.30pm on Saturday. Around 45 minutes into the effort to douse the fire, the depot was rocked by a huge explosion that sent bodies flying, and when it died down, the scene was one of desperate devastation, with human limbs strewn around.
There is no disputing that this blast transformed the scale of the disaster, although what caused it is less certain. The presence of large amounts of hydrogen peroxide, produced and exported by another subsidiary of the depot's owning company, provided a telling clue. Although hydrogen peroxide is not even classified as a flammable or combustible item, as it will not fuel a fire on its own, where there is already a fire though, hydrogen peroxide, or H2O2, can be very dangerous.
That is because it is an oxidizer, which means it adds oxygen or other elements that behave similarly to a situation. Despite not necessarily being combustible themselves, oxidizers are treated as a 'severe fire hazard'. Depending on the amount, they can 'greatly intensify fires and cause explosions'.
That means those first responders were lambs led to slaughter.
We get a sense of this pattern of events from the tragic Facebook Live of Oliur Rahman, a young man employed at the depot who went live from his Facebook page when the fire first broke out at the depot. He was informing everyone about the fire on Facebook Live.
The broadcast shows firefighters and other depot staff struggling to contain the fire. Around 41 minutes in, there is an apocalyptic explosion and then the screen goes black, indicating whoever was holding the phone had clearly lost control of it. The Live continues for a few more minutes before cutting out.
People calling Oliur's phone from that point on found it switched off and he went missing. His family identified his body at CMCH the next day. The blast amid the fire is suspected to have also been the cause for the greatest loss of firefighters in a single incident in Bangladesh's history.
Can things get better?
This incident illustrates the urgent need to ensure proper handling and storage of chemicals, proper training for storage facility staff at awareness and operational levels, and effective crowd control during an emergency incident. Additionally, the incident underscores the need for an effective industrial and enterprise safety framework and enforcement and training system to ensure a structured approach to mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery to all hazards. This will require improved collaboration and partnership between government departments, employers and workers representatives, and civil society.
Tackling this problem calls for action in a number of areas. These include a review of regulations and enforcement in the transport and logistics sector, the payment of adequate compensation and income support to injured and disabled workers and families of workers who lost lives in work-related accidents, and to conduct safety campaigns that target transport/logistic service providers as well as emergency-service personnel.
Recently the government, employer and worker representatives have agreed to roll out a modern, comprehensive Employment Injury Scheme (EIS) in Bangladesh starting from the ready-made garment (RMG) sector, with the possibility of extension to other sectors. Such a system includes accident prevention, immediate and long-term compensation, and rehabilitation to return to work.
The ILO continues to work closely with the Government of Bangladesh, employers' and workers' organisations and development partners to improve working conditions in all industries expanding learning from the ready-made garment RMG industry since the Rana Plaza tragedy in April 2013.
Proper monitoring of industries by the government to ensure that industrial and accidental risks are properly understood, addressed and prevented is essential to improving safe working conditions in Bangladesh.
ILO and the broader UN system in Bangladesh hopes that this tragic accident will drive all parties involved to apply renewed vigour in addressing the safety deficits in workplaces across the country and we extend our assistance to continue to build a safer Bangladesh for all.
Police on Wednesday filed a case against eight employees of BM Container Depot four days after the fire and explosions killed at least 45 people and injured over 200. However, the owners of the BM Container Depot and Al Razi Chemical Complex Limited, which stored hydrogen peroxide chemical in over 30 containers, were spared in the case.
The eight accused in the case are BM Container Depot general manager Nazmul Akhter Khan, deputy general manager (operations) Nurul Akhter Khan, manager (admin) Khaledur Rahman, assistant administrative officer Abbas Ullah, senior executive (admin) Nasir Uddin, assistant manager Abdul Aziz, and depot shed in-charge Saiful Islam and assistant depot shed in-charge Nazrul Islam.
Police filed the case against them for negligence, causing the deaths and injuries in the fire incident and explosion at the depot on Saturday. Sitakunda police sub-inspector Ashraf Siddique filed the case at the instruction of high officials, said police sources.
Asked why the owners of the depot and the chemical factory were spared, Chattogram district police superintendent SM Rashidul Hoque declined to comment.
Chattogram south district Awami League treasurer Muzibur Rahman, also the editor of the Chattogram local daily Purbodesh, is an owner of Al Razi Chemical Complex Limited and a director of BM Container Depot.
The chairman of the depot is Dutch businessman Bert Pronk, who also has other investments in Bangladesh, while the managing director is Mustafizur Rahman of the Smart Group of Industries.
Police accused the eight employees of BM Container Depot under sections 304 (Ka), 337 and 338 of the code of criminal procedure 1860.
The accused will face the highest five years in jail and financial penalty under the section 304 (Ka), the highest six months in jail or Tk 500 financial penalty under section 337 and the highest two years in jail or Tk 5,000 financial penalty under section 338 if the allegations are proved in the court.
Chattogram district administration, Chittagong Port Authority, the Department of Factory and Establishment Inspection, Chattogram Custom and Fire Service and Civil Defense authorities have formed five separate probe committees over the fire incident.
Badiul Alam, who is heading the probe committee formed by the district administration, said that they sent letters to different offices for documents of the BM Container Depot and hydrogen peroxide that was stored in some containers.
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