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Gas cylinder or transformer blast?

  • Published at 01:39 am February 24th, 2019
Fire fighters fight flames that engulfed several buildings at Churihatta Lane in Old Dhaka's Chawkbazar area on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Although probe committees are yet to ascertain what caused fire, they are certain that stored chemicals helped spread it

Three days after one of the deadliest fires in Dhaka’s history, authorities are yet to determine the cause of the massive blaze that killed at least 67 people in Old Dhaka's densely populated Chawkbazar area.

Currently at least half of a dozen of probe committees, formed by different government organisations, are working on to find out the actual cause of what sparked fire.

They offered different views, however, their initial comments are basically centring two core reasons- either a gas cylinder blast or a transformer blast. However only one point where almost all of them have similar view is that chemical stored at the area helped spread fire.

Video footage and eye-witness account

First ever video footage covering the initial moments of Wednesday's fire was surfaced yesterday.

According to the footage from the CCTV camera in Hotel Raj Mahal, on the ground floor of Haji Wahed Mansion, on Nanda Kumar Lane in Old Dhaka  shows the employees of the restaurant working when the explosion rips through the street at 10:32pm on the day.

People are seen running away from the source of the fire.

Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune on the night of the incident at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, victim Haji Md Salahuddin said he was sitting in a rickshaw when the explosion came from overhead, knocking down a roadside wall.

“That point (Chawkbazar Shahi Mosque point) was gridlocked. Suddenly a massive bang with fire and shockwaves totally destroyed the roadside wall,” Salahuddin said.

Salahuddin was struck by a part of the wall on his head.

“When I was finally able to stand up on my feet, I saw damaged electricity wires on the street and glass bottles, exploding like Molotov cocktails. I screamed Allahu Akbar and ran away from there.”

Asked whether it was a car cylinder that had exploded, he said: “It was the transformer above my head that exploded, not the car’s cylinder. I wasn’t far from the car. If the cylinder exploded, the car would’ve blown up. But that did not happen.”

So was it a transformer blast?

An investigation by Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC), found that the fire was not caused by a transformer explosion.

After visiting the spot on Friday, DPDC formed two member committee head its Managing Director Bikash Dewan said none of their transformers exploded during the blaze.

“No transformer blast occurred during the fire at Churihatta. However, three electricity polls, four spans of low voltage cables, and five spans of aerial bundle cables were damaged,” he said.

He further said there were no transformers around Wahed Mansion, the building where the fire reportedly originated.

“The only nearby transformers - at Haidarbox lane and Katara Community Centre - are both intact and undamaged,” Dewan added.

Then was it a gas cylinder?

Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) mayor Sayeed Khokon thinks the fire originated from the explosion of a car’s gas cylinder.

The mayor said yesterday that a collected video footage of the fire shows the fire broke out from gas cylinder of a car.

According to him, police had also confirmedthat the explosion of a car gas cylinder triggered the blaze.

But, there are different views as well.

As per a preliminary investigation by Department of Explosives, the authorities recovered an intact gas cylinder from the pickup truck from which the fire allegedly began.

The department’s Chief Inspector Shamsul Alam on Friday said: “We have gathered sufficient insight and determined that the fire likely originated from a transformer, a gas cylinder, or a chemical explosion. However, an intact gas cylinder was found on the pickup where the fire supposedly began.”

Shamsul Alam identified the plastic and chemical factories as responsible for the rapid spread of the fire.

Industries minister versus all

All investigators however, are at odds with the remarks of Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun, who said the fire in Chawkbazar was unrelated to any chemical warehouses.

According to the minister, the LPG cylinder was being delivered to the area on a truck, when a transformer blew and caused it to explode.

“The fire had nothing to do with a chemical warehouse. There was no chemical warehouse on the ground floor of the building where the fire spread to first, although a perfume and cosmetics warehouse was located there,” he said while visiting the site of the fire on Thursday.

However the statement made by probe committee members contradicts with his views.

The fire spread rapidly due to the chemicals in the warehouses of the area, confirmeda 10 member probe committee formed by the DSCC.

Team leader of the committee DSCC Chief Engineer Rezaul Karim pointed out that a significant quantity of combustible substances and chemicals had been stored inside Wahed Mansion. 

“The fire, fuelled by the chemicals, generated extreme heat and spread quickly throughout the neighbourhood,” he added.

"There must have been a chemical warehouse inside the building, and there was no fire extinguishing system," Lt Col SM Julfiker Rahman, director of Fire Service and Civil Defence told reporters after visiting Haji Wahed Mansion.

"The powder found in the building was from a chemical substance...the plastic bottles were full of chemicals," Lt Col Julfiker, a member of Fire Service probe committee, said.

He added that lighter fluid and perfume were among the flammable chemicals stored in the building.

The devastating fire that first started on a three-storey building of Haji Wahed Mansion was housing in its basement large quantities of flammable substances, namely chemical materials such as printing dye.

Fire Service and Civil Defense Deputy Assistant Director Saleh Uddin, after visiting the spot on Friday, said the entire basement is full of chemicals and if would have reach the basement, then we would have had an even bigger disaster.

“We knew about the chemicals inside the basement. We deployed an extra team to focus on putting out the fire near that area so the fire would not be able to spread further,” Saleh further added.

Keeping chemicals in places like these was completely illegal, he stated.

Shamsul Alam, chief inspector of Explosives Department, also confirmed that chemical stores housed in the area and some stores of plastic grains housed at the ground floor of Wahid Mansion helped fuel the fire.

Although Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader was yet to confirm whether the LPG cylinder that allegedly started the fire had been on a car or in a building, he admitted that the fire may have spread quickly due to the presence of chemical compounds stored in buildings in the area.

Inspector General of Police Javed Patwary also confirmed that a chemical warehouse was located in the building where the fire spread to first.

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