He was sitting against a wall about a hundred yards away from the Chawkbazar fire spot. Clad in soot-covered firefighters' overalls and with bloodshot eyes, he looked utterly exhausted. He seemed perplexed when The Daily Star correspondents asked his name.
“We have worked the whole night dousing the devastating fire. [I] can't explain how uphill the task was. The fire spread so fast… it made our job difficult,” said Abdus Shahid, senior station officer of Lalbagh Fire Station.
He was one of the first responders to rush with a team of six to the spot around 10:40pm on Wednesday, barely five minutes after the fire broke out at the densely-populated Churihatta intersection in Chawkbazar.
“We could see the flames from a mile. Within a moment, I called the control room [fire service] for help,” said Shahid.
He said when their team reached the spot, what they saw was total chaos. People were screaming and shouting for help. Chemical fireballs rained down and set vehicles and rickshaws ablaze. The pedestrians engulfed in flames were running for their lives.
“Yet, we reached near the fire,” said Shahid. He paused to catch a breath. “I am not feeling well, can't really talk much.”
As they started working, several other teams joined in. Apart from the firefighters, the role of locals was commendable as they tried their best to put out the fire with whatever tools they had.
“Everyone tried their best to help,” said Abul Alim, a resident of the area.
“But the way fire crews were doing their job is unbelievable,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, a local.
In fact, the combined role played by the firefighters and local volunteers had helped prevent further spread of the inferno, which could have caused more casualties.
People vacated the streets to allow fire vehicles to enter the spot. Locals also joined the rescue operation, witnesses said.
Firefighters firstly started evacuating people from the spot. Then they sprayed water on the adjacent buildings so that fire does not spread.
During the operation at Hazi Wahed Mansion, repeated explosions of the body spray cans rocked the building amid raging fire. Even though chunks of plasters were falling off and parts of walls collapsing, firefighters continued to spray water to douse the blaze, risking their lives.
Md Abdul Halim, senior station officer of Hazaribagh Fire Station, had just completed his dinner when he heard about the incident from the control room.
“The 14 of us headed for the spot at 10:45pm [Wednesday],” he told this newspaper.
He said first they used water from household reserve tanks and then started collecting water from Wasa point, which was far away from the spot. “In addition, we had to hold on to the fire hoses for hours.”
“If the blaze was not caused by chemicals, we could have brought it under control within the soonest possible time. The entire night we fought to bring the fire under control and in the morning we were finally able to do so.”
He said they returned to their station around 1:10pm yesterday.
Hasibur Rahman, a fireman, said they had made every possible effort to prevent the fire from spreading to other buildings.
“Suddenly, I saw two people seeking help, stretching their hand from the collapsible gate of Wahed Mansion. My colleague and I immediately broke the lock and rescued them. Further away, I saw two others caught on fire, but I had to backtrack,” he said.
Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defense, said, “It is the nature of our job. We would have been satisfied, if we could save all the lives.”
“Our firefighters were exhausted… the water source was not close by. We had to collect water 800-900 yards away from the spot. It was strenuous,” he told The Daily Star.
“We encircled the area. Our first priority was not to allow the fire to spread. We were able to contain it in a limited scale,” said Khan, who was at the spot since the beginning of the operation.