It did not look like a factory or a workplace; rather, it looked like a large compound for confinement.
The fire-ravaged plastic factory in Keraniganj, with around 15,000 sqft floor space, had a single gate for entry and exit and no emergency exits whatsoever. It had six large rooms inside, but everyone there had to use that one gate to get out.
A perfect recipe for disaster.
Wednesday afternoon’s fire originated close to the gate and it trapped around 150 workers at the unapproved Prime Pet and Plastic Industries set up in a residential area of Chunkutia neighbourhood.
Survivors, witnesses and firemen told The Daily Star that it was difficult to get out of the burning factory as smoke engulfed all the rooms and it was near impossible to see and breathe in there.
They blamed this for the high number of casualties.
So far, 13 workers have died of burns. Of the injured, 10 are on life support at the ICU of Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery and nine others were stated to be in critical condition at the high dependency unit of Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
“First of all, the factory is not compliant. And the area is not suitable for such a factory,” Abul Hossain, a deputy director of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told this newspaper.
“If the factory had a couple of more gates, the workers probably could have come out before the fire spread,” said Abul, who also leads a four-member fire service probe committee that visited the spot yesterday.
Abul was seconded by security guard of the factory Shakil Ahmed. He said, “I saw many running out of the gate entirely in flames. Skin of several burnt people were coming off.”
Locals alleged that the authorities concerned turned a blind eye to the lack of safety measures at the factory even though it had been producing disposable plastic cups and plates for around 10 years and had witnessed two other fire incidents this year alone.
The fire service team inspected the factory in June and gave three-months’ time to install safety measures but no follow-up inspection was made, according to sources.
KM Ali Azam, secretary to the labour and employment ministry, said an inspection team of his ministry visited the factory on November 5 and filed a case against it for non-compliance.
During a visit, The Daily Star correspondent found the heat of the fire had bent and caved the corrugated-iron sheet roof. All the machinery there were charred along with plastic products and raw materials.
Burnt gas cylinders and sandals of the ill-fated workers were scattered on
the floor as officials from the fire service and other government bodies inspected.
Workers who survived said the fire was fuelled by gas leaking from one of the eight cylinders inside a room.
Fire officials were yet to ascertain the cause of the fire. But the one thing they were sure of was that flammable plastic and other objects fed the flames.
The factory was near a four-storey residential building but only the building owner lived there. Nobody wanted to lease flats near the noisy and smelly factory, locals said.
“The air was always filled with the smell of chemicals and we had difficulties breathing in the area … ,” said Shamima, a resident of a nearby building. She said they had been planning to sell off their land and move elsewhere because of this factory.
After the news of death of so many workers spread, locals yesterday staged demonstrations in front of the factory demanding immediate ban on such factories in residential areas.
They alleged that different government regulatory organisations aided factory owner Nazrul Islam in running the factory by taking bribes.
Nazrul is on the run, police said.
When the locals were chanting slogans, a group of ruling-party men led by Mirazur Rahman Suman, president of South Keraniganj unit of Swechchhasebak League, drove them away.
Suman even threatened a youth who had defied his instruction to disperse.
Suman told The Daily Star that they drove the demonstrators away to stop “BNP-Jamaat men creating chaos”.
“Factory owner Nazrul is a powerful man with links to local influential people. We cannot speak against him,” said a local youth.
Meanwhile, the labour and employment ministry yesterday formed a five-member committee to investigate the fire. It said it would give Tk 1 lakh to the family of each deceased and Tk 50,000 to each injured worker.
Yesterday, doctors at DMCH conducted autopsies on bodies of 10 victims and those were later handed over to their families.
The relatives of the dead had staged demonstrations near the morgue protesting delays in conducting the autopsies.
MD Jahangir, brother of deceased factory worker Alam, filed a murder case with Keraniganj South Police Station accusing factory owner Nazrul and 12 unnamed people last night in connection with the incident.
Yesterday, the factory’s senior engineer Salauddin, 32; and workers Mahbubul Haque, 25; Zinarul Silam, 32; Md Imran, 18; Rayhan, 16; Abdul Khalek, 35; Babul, 26; Alam, 35; Omar Faruque, 35; Sujan, 19; Jahangir, 55; and Mehedi Hasan, 30, died in hospital.
Fire incidents at factories and warehouses in residential areas are common in the country. Safety measures are often poor there. In February 20, a devastating fire in Chawkbazar area of Old Dhaka claimed the lives of 70 and injured dozens.