“I’ve heard that the fire of hell is supposed to be 70 times hotter than fire on Earth. But if anything comes even close to that, it will be the fire at Churihatta,” says Din Mohammad, the leader of the firefighters at Mohammadpur fire station, explaining how devastating the Chawkbazar fire tragedy really was.
“When we stream water into fire, it usually becomes colder and colder and eventually the fire stops. But in Churihatta, it was almost as if the water was working as some sort of fuel. In theory, we read that when the temperature of the fire goes above 700 degrees Celsius, almost all metal objects start to melt. When we stream water into a fire that hot, an atom of water instantly breaks down into hydrogen and oxygen. Oxygen burns and hydrogen helps it to burn,” he adds.
45-year-old Din Mohammad, who has two sons, started his career as a firefighter roughly 26 years ago at Narsingdi Fire Service and Civil Defense. Since then, he has worked at five different fire stations around the country—including Kurmitola, Dhaka EPZ, and Mohammadpur fire station.
In almost three decades on the job, Din Mohammad has come upon many disturbing experiences. But the experience that still haunts him takes us nearly six years back. It was during rescue operations at Rana Plaza in 2013. Din Mohammad was working at the DEPZ (Dhaka Export Processing Zone) fire station at the time. His team was the second team of firefighters to go to Rana Plaza immediately after it collapsed. The situation was so devastating that he called the control room and told them to send as many rescuers to the spot as soon as possible.
“We made an opening through RS Tower, which was located just beside Rana Plaza. Upon entering, I saw a girl stuck in the collapsed structure. At the same time, I also saw a hand hanging from above her trying to grab the girl’s face or anything at all. The girl was continuously trying to move that hand away from her face. The body the hand belonged to wasn’t visible to us. We rescued the girl. But at the same time, I saw that hand stop moving right in front of my eyes. I’ve never felt so helpless in my entire life.”
Din Mohammad kept telling one story after another, without blinking, as if this was normal. In this job of his, seeing dead bodies or dealing with them without any fear is what makes them a better firefighter. However, he wasn’t like this from the beginning.
“When I heard the fire station bell ring for the first time, I was scared. This was back in 1993. I was shaking so much that it was difficult for me to even wear my shirt,” he says. It was also during the first few weeks of his job that he saw his first dead bodies. “It was a father and son. There was no signal at that rail crossing. They went under a train and their bodies were split into half.” Din Mohammad couldn’t eat anything for a week after that incident.
While Din Mohammad has gotten familiar with dealing with such accidents, his station officer Md Ashraful Islam, 30, who considers Din Mohammad his teacher, has a hard time reporting to certain situations. “The first time I saw a dead body was when we received a call from Dhaka Residential College. A man was electrocuted while trying to cut a tree. When we went there, I saw the electrocuted dead body just hanging from the tree entangled in the wires like a bat. I got scared. While I was panicking, Din Mohammad told me to keep calm and call the control room to tell them about the situation.”
“After a couple of days, we got another call from a road accident in Gabtoli. Upon arriving there, I saw a person looking at me as if that person was still alive. I told Din Mohammad about it. He, again, told me to calm down and did everything he could do. Those ice-cold eyes haunted me for the next few months. But it’s all in the past now,” Islam adds.
Dr Jhunu Shamsun Nahar, professor of psychiatry at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, finds it highly unusual that the firefighters don’t appear to get traumatised. “Even we, the psychiatrists, become traumatised when we listen to the heartbreaking details of accidents,” she says. “Maybe the stress-coping capacity among some of them are so strong that it doesn’t bother them anymore. But it should have some impact on their family life.”
Dr Nahar believes that the responsibilities and ideology of firefighters make them deny the fact that this stress is something they should worry about. She is also unaware of any initiative taken for the psychological counselling of the firefighters. “Usually, psychologically unwell rescuers/victims come to us through different development projects. We got projects on Rana Plaza rescuers and people who were affected by SIDR [the 2007 cyclone]. We still haven’t gotten any project that emphasises the mental condition of firefighters,” she says.
In the last two years of working at Mohammadpur fire station, Islam has changed a lot. Death doesn’t affect him the way it did before. During the recent Chawkbazar fire tragedy, he worked for almost seven hours, recovering approximately 34 dead bodies. “Our colleagues who went inside before us told us to not look down. They just told us to get in, hold the pipe of water and leave the spot when done. We had to think twice while stepping on the ground as we might end up stepping on someone’s dead body,” he says.
But what about the firefighters’ families? Asking the question, this correspondent received a counter question from Islam, “What about them? Do you think that they would let us do what we do if they knew about it?” Most of the time, he doesn’t tell his mother before going to an operation. His father, however, is a retired fireman who understands his situation. Islam only calls his father while en route to an operation, to let him know that he’s going in. “After the operation, I call my mother to let her know that there was a fire incident and that I had gone in and made it back.”
Din Mohammad’s answer to the question is more straightforward. He says, “If we do what we’re doing while caring about our family, we won’t be able to do it. When we jump inside the fire, we have to forget about everything else. Putting out the fire and saving the lives of the people becomes our first and foremost priority.”
The overall job experience of firefighters in our country is pretty hard to believe. They need to work for 24 hours straight without any break. However, after every two to three days of continuous work, they get 24 hours of what is known as ‘barrack rest’.
However, Mohammad Kazal Miah, senior station officer at Mohammadpur fire station says that this break doesn’t come most of the time, due to the increasing numbers of fire incidents nowadays. The firefighters sometimes have to stay on duty for up to four days.
“We don’t have enough manpower. A station that covers 20 square kilometers of the densely populated Dhaka City requires at least 3 station officers and 60 firemen to operate fluently,” Kazal Miah says.
While talking to Din Mohammad, he says that the most satisfying thing in this world to him is to save someone alive. “When we manage to rescue someone alive, it means a lot to us. All of the sufferings we go through, all of the sacrifices we have to make suddenly seems like nothing at all.” This satisfaction of saving people’s lives is what motivates the firefighters to continue doing what they do.
Mohammad Tajul Islam is a contributor