It is certain that there was a gross violation of the factory code, says the Fire Service
The fire at the food processing factory, owned by Sajeeb Group’s Hashem Food Ltd, turned out to be fatal as several parts of the six-storey building were locked and partitioned, says the fire service.
The factory in Rupganj upazila of Narayanganj outside the capital Dhaka was built by violating basic rules, according to officials, who said it had no emergency fire exits and lacked adequate safety measures.
The 35,000-square feet establishment had only two staircases. Some workers managed to reach the roof and were rescued after it caught fire on Thursday, but many could not escape, police said, adding that one of the entrances of the stairs to the roof was locked. At least 52 workers died in the blaze.
“The biggest challenge to dousing the fire, as we found, was that there were several compartments on every floor. Partitioning the floors was a major mistake,” said Deputy Director Dinomoni Sharma of the Fire Service and Civil Defence’s Dhaka Division.
Firefighters had to struggle to enter the fourth floor as it was locked, according to him.
“Forty-nine charred bodies were found on that floor. Many lives could have been saved if it had been unlocked,” added the senior Fire Service official.
On Saturday, a Dhaka court granted police four days to grill Sajeeb Group Managing Director Abul Hashem, CEO Shahan Shah Azad and six others in a murder case.
Before his arrest, CEO Azad told the media that he did not know why the fourth floor was locked.
“From what I gathered after speaking to the factory staff, the stairs might have been locked as they were hardly ever used,” he said.
A worker of the factory, asking not to be named, said that the authorities always kept the entrances to the third, fourth and fifth floors locked “in a bid to stop pilferage”.
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The fire service said that firefighters found the top three floors locked during their search and rescue operations.
Violation of basic rules
Fire Service officials have blamed a faulty fire safety system at the factory for the fatal blaze.
According to senior Fire Service official Dinomoni, the burnt building was named as the "central store", but several floors of it housed manufacturing units.
“There were only two exits, which should have been at least four. We also did not find any fire safety measures,” he told Dhaka Tribune on Saturday after visiting the scene.
He said the Fire Service personnel had noticed several pipelines running through the building. “But we are yet to find out whether they were used to transport fuels like gas, and steam to operate the machines.”
However, Zulfikar, a factory worker, told Dhaka Tribune that pipelines were used to transport gas for ovens on the second and fifth floors, used to bake food items like biscuits.
The ground floor of the building was used to store packaging materials.
According to Dinomoni, the flames originated from the south-eastern corner of the ground floor and spread through the entire building.
“Flammable items like plastic and cardboard boxes as well as edible oil and other chemicals caused the blaze to grow massive,” he said, adding the official probe by the Fire Service will begin on Sunday.
“It is certain that there was a gross violation of the building code,” said the senior Fire Service official.
Another fire two weeks ago
Several local people and workers said that another small fire broke out in the factory two weeks ago, when a worker was killed in the incident.
Moreover, on July 1, the workers demonstrated demanding dues and allowance for overtime.
A senior Narayanganj police official, asking not to be named, said that a general diary was filed with the local Rupganj police station over the incident.
However, Rupganj police declined to comment.
In a report filed two weeks ago, the Department of Factories and Establishment said that the factory was not being operated in line with standard regulations, according to sources at the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
“There was no negligence on our part. Investigations will reveal the cause of the fire. We will check whether the documents related to the factory are in order,” said Md Nasir Uddin Ahmed, inspector general of the department.
Fire unearths child labour
Most of the victims of the deadly blaze were under 18 years of age, claimed the families of the missing workers.
According to them, there were girls as young as 12 years and boys as young as 14. They used to get paid between Tk3,000 and Tk6,000.
The authorities of Hashem Foods Ltd, however, claimed their workers were listed as adults amid allegations of child labour being used at the factory.
Narayanganj police have initiated a case on a range of charges, including murder under Section 302 of the Penal Code, which is punishable by death or life imprisonment.The other charges include attempt to murder and voluntarily causing serious injuries.