A fire has gutted the office of newspaper Amar Desh’s online section on the 10th floor of Karwan Bazar’s BSEC building, the same site where two previous fires had claimed several lives and caused millions of taka worth of damages.
The latest blaze broke out around 11:45am and remained burning until around 2pm before 21 fire-fighting units were finally able to bring the flames under control. About 100 fire fighters along with volunteers worked frantically to douse the flames to ensure minimum damages.
“There have been no casualties. The 10th floor of the building was, however, completely gutted,” Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told reporters at the spot.
Other offices on the tenth floor – which was the only floor that suffered extensive damages – included a law chamber and a garment accessories’ office.
The BSEC building also housed several media houses including television channels RTV and NTV. Both the TV channels stopped broadcasting when the building’s main power source was shut down because of the fire.
AKM Rafiqul Islam, senior correspondent of NTV, said: “We heard about the fire while attending a workshop on the third floor. We panicked and rushed to the ground floor. No one was injured.”
Coming out of the burned down tenth floor, the fire service’s Director (operations) Maj Muhammod Mahbub said it would have been devastating if the flamed had spread to other floors, adding that the number of people in the building was fewer than usual as it was a weekly holiday.
Although the fire service said they initially suspected the fire to have originated from an electrical short circuit, different versions of claims were also made by witnesses and Amar Desh authorities.
An employee of the Amar Desh said the online section of the newspaper was supposed to shift its office yesterday from the BSEC building to new premises in Gulshan’s Niketon.
“There was no other staff in the office except two from the administration department and two technicians of AC (air-conditioner) who came to shift some electronic devices. Six hired labourers were helping us,” said Ahmed Ali, one of the technicians working in the Amar Desh office when it caught fire.
“After the labourers loaded the ACs onto a truck, we came again to the office upstairs to check what else we could take from there. Suddenly, we saw a spark on the place of the false ceiling.
“The false ceilings of the office had already been removed earlier. So, we could not locate the source of the spark and switched off the circuit breaker for safety,” he said.
After a while, fumes started coming out of a warehouse at the back of the administration department in the office, he said, adding: “Mainly old files and documents of the sealed Amar Desh daily had been preserved there.
“We used extinguishers to try and douse the small fume but it became toxic. We then used the fire exit to get away from the office and notified the NTV and RTV staff who were present on the lower floors,” he said.
Asked if there was any possibility of arson, Ahmed Ali said: “The fire was probably caused by a short circuit. There was nobody other than us on that floor.”
The technician also admitted that the Amar Desh authority had disputes with the Bangladesh Steel and Engineering Corporation (BSEC) authority over outstanding floor rent.
“We had permission of shifting one truckload of valuables a day, not more than that. Since the last four or five days, we have been shifting slowly,” he said.
A peon of Amar Desh, Abbas Ali Hawladar, said he was the last person to come out of the warehouse, and claimed that the fire originated in a locked room of the warehouse where official files, out-of-date computers and other materials were stacked up.
Amar Desh authorities, however, claimed that the fire had taken place under mysterious circumstances.
In the afternoon, Amar Desh Executive Editor Syed Abdal Ahmed told a press conference: “We want to state clearly that this was not a fire under normal circumstances; this was a mysterious fire.
“About 500 of our journalists have been leading distressed life after the government sealed our press and locked up our Editor Mahmudur Rahman. We could not pay the rent for our online office. Yesterday [Thursday] we cleared our dues. Today [Friday], we were moving to a new office to run the online section in full flow. Our hopes were high.”
Demanding compensation for the damages caused by the fire, he also called for the immediate release of their editor as well as being allowed to resume publication of the printed edition of the Bangla daily.
Visiting the site, BNP acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir also claimed that he suspected that the incident might be a conspiracy by the government.
“It was pre-planned. The government has already sealed the paper and locked its editor. There are two TV channels on the building
which also always speak the truth against the government. So, they [government] wanted to destroy them [the newspaper and TV channels],” the BNP leader said.
However, when asked if he had any proof to back his claim, Fakhrul said: “No, we are assuming that. The equations also suggest it.”
Also visiting the site, NTV Chairman Mosaddeque Ali Falu termed the fire a “subversive activity,” and added: “How can an institution progress if it catches fires repeatedly?”
Meanwhile, BSEC Secretary Masud Ahmed said the Amar Desh authority was falling behind on monthly rent since the print addition had been closed. He added that Amar Desh also had outstanding rent, but was unable to specify the exact due as he did not have the necessary papers with him at the time.
However, a BSEC official, requesting not to be named, said the Amar Desh had nearly Tk1 crore in outstanding rent for the office.
“Recently, they sent a letter to the BSEC saying they wanted to leave the building. We asked them to pay the dues and they started paying partially,” the BSEC secretary told the Dhaka Tribune.
But Amar Desh reportedly did not notify the BSEC that they were leaving the office yesterday. “We did not know that they were leaving. They did it secretly,” Masud claimed.
Fire hazard in the building
Firefighters said the BSEC building, where three people were killed and about 50 were injured during a devastating fire in February 2007, lacked adequate fire safety measures. The building also caught fire earlier on December 25, 2005.
Fire Service DG Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan said following the 2007 fire, a set of recommendations had been given to the BSEC; but those suggestions had been ignored.
“The number of fire exits, which is now two, should be more and the building also lacks in housekeeping. Piles of papers and wastes were found on staircase which barred firefighters to reach the floor,” he said.
Following yesterday’s fire, a five-member panel headed by Fire Service’s Deputy Director Sheikh Mizanur Rahman has been formed to investigate the incident and report within a week, the Fire Service DG said, adding that six rooms of the 10th floor were not damaged in the fire.
However, BSEC Secretary Masud Ahmed denied allegations of fire hazards and said they have improved fire safety of the building as per recommendations by three committees of the Fire Service, BSEC and Industries Ministry. “We had asked the firemen to inspect and they said, all were okay,” he claimed.
They have also formed a five member-committee headed by Director (finance) Syed Muzammel Haque to probe yesterday’s fire.