The BM Container Depot, where the tragic fire incident unfolded on Saturday night claiming at least 49 lives, lacked the proper infrastructure to house combustible materials, according to the Department of Explosives.
Officials of the department and chemists have said that the depot authorities were negligent in storing chemical products at the BM container depot which led to the tragedy.
"We were not informed that combustible material was kept in the BM container depot. A special kind of infrastructure is required for the storage of such products. But there was no such arrangement in the depot," Tofazzal Hossain, inspector of the Department of Explosives, Chattogram told The Business Standard.
In the wake of the incident, traders pointed out that on 20 September 2020, four workers were killed in an explosion at the Incontrade depot in Chattogram's Patenga area. The accident happened while repairing a prime mover tank.
On 11 November last year, a fire broke out inside the Chattogram port in the P Shed containing flammable goods. Despite all these incidents, Chattogram Port, customs and explosives authorities did not take the matter seriously, they said.
"Hydrogen peroxide is a highly corrosive explosive. It is necessary to maintain the temperature very carefully. An explosion occurs when the temperature drops or if it is difficult to move," Muhammad Idris Ali, a chemistry professor at Chattogram Haji Mohammad Mohsin College told The Business Standard.
"Due to its high density, with the slightest contact with skin, it would burn. Depot authorities did not take necessary safety precautions while storing it in large containers," he added.
State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said that BM Depot authorities were negligent in handling the container.
Chattogram Custom House Commissioner Mohammad Fakhrul Alam said, "Such incidents had not happened in 30-35 years. So it can be said that this is just an accident. We have formed a five-member probe committee tasked with filing a report within 7 days."
He also said there is a law on the loss of imported goods. If any company suffers such a loss, it will get duty-free facility.
"Another probe committee composed of the Chattogram authorities, customs and fire services has also been formed. It will also file its report in a short time," he added.
Rakibul Alam Chowdhury, co-president of BGMEA, said that not only BM container depots but also other private depots including ones in the Chattogram port have such chemical products.
"There is no guarantee that such incidents will not happen again as these products have not been unloaded or auctioned in time. Therefore, the Chattogram customs authority should follow the process of unloading and maintaining the chemical products on time," he said.
"We are now focusing on treating the injured," he said, adding, "We will work on determining the damages later. BGMEA will work on product insurance and how to coordinate losses with foreign buyers."
Ctg port again in the spotlight on chemical goods
According to the latest data prepared by the Chattogram Port Authority on 5 April, there are 259 containers containing dangerous goods in the port. This includes products dated as old as 1994. The list of hazardous products includes various chemical products including hydrogen peroxide, sulfate, sulfuric acid, fire extinguisher, thinner, sodium sulfate, methanol, ethyl hexanol, nitric acid and calcium oxide.
The Chattogram Port Authority is in trouble with these products. The Chattogram custom-house authorities are not removing the products from the port yard even though they have been cleared for sale or destruction at auction.
The port authorities say that there is a possibility of a bigger disaster due to the chemical products left like this for years. The port authorities want to remove these products from the port yard as soon as possible so that the recurrence of the Beirut port incident does not happen in Chattogram port.
Rear Admiral M Shahjahan, chairman of the Chattogram Port Authority, has recently written to the secretary of the shipping ministry to take necessary steps to remove dangerous goods and cargo containers. It noted that these hazardous goods and containers were putting the port at risk, as well as disrupting normal port operations.
On 19 April, The Business Standard ran a report titled "Hazardous chemicals in Ctg port pose risks of accidents".
Chattogram Custom House Commissioner Mohammad Fakhrul Alam said the BM container authorities should have kept the hazardous materials separate. Through this incident, it is understood that hazardous products are not kept separate even in other depots of Bangladesh. Hazardous products require a separate ICD for storage.
He further said that if the concerned agencies including the Department of Explosives and the Department of Factories were under obligation to inspect the depots, then the depots would be inspected.
Chattogram Port Authority Chairman Rear Admiral M Shahjahan and Secretary Mohammad Omar Farooq could not be reached for comment.
BM Container Depot official Nazmul Akhtar Khan said the depot is located on 24 acres of land. There were about 4300 containers and 3000 containers were empty. Some 450 containers were imported and 800 were export-bound. Containers for chemical products are kept separate. It was not clear how many chemical containers were stored there.
Our authorities have already announced the formation of a five-member inquiry committee to co-operate with the government-appointed inquiry committee. I request you to look into whether it was an accident or sabotage or intentional harm done by an opponent.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments has formed a three-member inquiry committee into the blast at the BM container depot. The committee has been asked to submit an on-site inspection report within the next three working days.
Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Mominur Rahman said the district administration is also in the process of forming an investigation committee.
Meanwhile, a five-member high-level inquiry committee headed by the terminal manager of the Chattogram Port has been formed to probe the BM Depot incident. The committee has been asked to report within 7 days.
In 2012, Smart Group of Chattogram set up the BM Container Depot. Initially, the company was owned by a group from the Netherlands and the Smart Group. Later, when the company in the Netherlands relinquished its ownership, Smart Group became the sole owner. The group has business in sectors including readymade garment factories, LP gas, textile, energy, logistics, real estate, lifestyle and food.
On the night of June 4, a fire broke out at the BM Container Depot in Sitakunda, Chattogram due to a chemical explosion. At the time of filing this report at least 49 people were killed with more than two hundred injured.