Officials: No fire exits, single stairway in Dhaka building where fire killed dozens

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Officials: No fire exits, single stairway in Dhaka building where fire killed dozens Firefighters use a ladder to extract victims during rescue operations following a blaze in a commercial building that killed dozens, in Dhaka, Feb. 29, 2024.
Munir Uz Zaman/AFP

A seven-floor Dhaka building hosting restaurants and retail shops that went up in flames was built with a single staircase and zero fire exits, a top fire official said Friday after the blaze killed at least 46 people.

The cause of the fire that broke out at a first-floor restaurant on Thursday night and spread fast to the upper floors had yet to be determined as of late Friday. But such blazes are endemic in Bangladesh’s commercial structures mainly because safety standards are ignored to cut corners, and sometimes building inspectors are paid off to approve permits, one expert said.

The death toll from Thursday’s fire was expected to rise with 22 people still considered critically injured, hospital authorities said.

The chief of Dhaka’s fire service and civil defense, Brig. Gen. Md. Main Uddin, spoke to reporters on Friday after inspecting the wreckage of the building called the Green Cozy Cottage Shopping Mall.

“The building had no fire exits. There was only one staircase for the whole building,” he said.  

After the fire started at around 9:45 p.m., the entire structure was quickly engulfed in flames, and it took firefighters more than two hours to control the blaze.

Most of the 46 people who died had perished from suffocation, health ministry officials said.

One man, Syed Riad, said that his cousin and four other family members who were dining in the building died in the fire.   

“My cousin was preparing to take his wife and children there [Italy],” he told BenarNews. “The visa was done for everyone. But they cannot go — they died in the Bailey Road fire,” he said, adding he suspected they were having dinner in the building when the fire started.

On Friday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her anguish at the lives lost and castigated architects and authorities responsible for ensuring that buildings have proper fire exits.

“We always request our architects, at least when they design homes or buildings, to keep a small open balcony, a fire exit or ventilation. But architects ... will not design that properly and also the owners do not want to leave an inch of space,” she said in an address at an unrelated event.

A family member of a relative killed in a building fire breaks down upon seeing the loved one’s body at Dhaka Medical College Hospital in Dhaka, March 1, 2024. [Jibon Ahmed/BenarNews]

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews more about how lax the safety situation was at the building that burned.

He said gas cylinders were found at the top of the stairwell as well as the steps of the narrow stairs.

“How would people move with a narrow staircase blocked by gas cylinders,” he said.

He said building owners often do not want to abide by the rules of the city development authority.

“Everybody wants to violate the rules. This is the problem,” he said. 

‘Homicide by negligence’

A whole range of city authorities were to blame for the Thursday fire, Iqbal Habib, an architect and a civil society leader, told BenarNews.

“I visited the building today and found that there was not a single ventilator in the entire building. The whole building was covered with glass,” he said, referring to the outer walls of the building mainly being protective glass and airtight, except for fitted air conditioners.

“I visited one room on the second floor where nine people died of suffocation. There were scratches on the walls of the room. It means they tried to save their lives but failed.”

Habib, who noted that he knew about the building before the fire, said it was originally designed for both offices and residences, but was converted into a commercial one without making the safety changes needed for such a change.

For instance, a building for offices may not need a big kitchen with a big air ventilation system. But for a restaurant, ventilators and fire extinguishers are paramount.

To make such a conversion needs city authorities’ approval.

“According to government law, Rajuk [the city development authority] approval is a precondition to get a trade license from the city corporation. Without Rajuk’s design approval and the city corporation’s trade license, the fire service and civil defense authorities will not issue a fire clearance certificate,” he said.

“Without the aforementioned certificates, the department of environment will not issue clearance certificates. But the building was converted into a commercial one.”

According to Habib, all these agencies must be seen as complicit in what happened because the building wouldn’t have been allowed to switch to a commercial one without their approval.

“All government agencies must shoulder responsibility for the deaths of so many people,” Habib said.  

“This is tantamount to homicide by negligence, and the persons having links with it must be made accountable,” he declared.

Firefighters work to contain a fire that broke out at a shopping mall in Dhaka, Feb. 29, 2024. [Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP]

Meanwhile, Rajuk announced it had formed an investigative committee to probe whether there had been flaws in the process of approving the design of the building.

The committee would also attempt to find the persons responsible if they had approved poor plans, Md. Ashraful Islam, Rajuk’s chief town planner, told BenarNews on Friday.

The committee has been asked to submit its findings in seven working days.

The setting up of such committees is standard practice in Bangladesh after manmade disasters such as fires, but one citizen who lives on the same street where the blaze occurred, questioned its relevance.

After a fire that originated in a warehouse storing flammable chemicals killed nearly 70 people in the densely populated section of old Dhaka in February 2019, Bangladeshi authorities announced they would crack down to stop businesses the illegal stoage of such hazardous material near residential areas.   

“What is the meaning of constituting probe committees like this? In the past, we saw devastating fires that killed hundreds of people. Probe committees were formed, they extended their deadlines, and at some point, the focus went out of the public eye,” Kamrul Islam, an employee at a private company, told BenarNews.

“How many officials have faced punishment for approving a faulty design? …When an incident happens, the government agencies point out the faults of the building. What did they do when the building was built with a faulty design? This is simply passing the buck, nothing else,” Islam said.


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