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Over 600 stalls gutted in inferno at weekly bazaar in Islamabad

Updated August 24, 2017

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Thick smoke rises from the burning stalls at H-9 weekly bazaar on Wednesday. — Photo by Mohammad Asim
Thick smoke rises from the burning stalls at H-9 weekly bazaar on Wednesday. — Photo by Mohammad Asim

ISLAMABAD: A massive fire, which took over four hours to put out, gutted a large section of the sprawling weekly bazaar in H-9 on Wednesday.

No one was hurt in the blaze that erupted around 11am since the market, which opens every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday, was closed at the time.

Around 550 stalls in ‘Block C’ – housing garment, utensil and nimko stalls, among others – were completely destroyed. The fire also affected 98 stalls in ‘Block H’, a shoe market.

Firefighters struggled to reach epicentre of blaze; mayor, district admin, police form committees to probe incident

Thick clouds of dark smoke billowed from the site of the blaze and could be seen across the capital. However, fire-fighters and rescue workers initially struggled to get past security barricades and roadblocks placed around the marketplace.

A fire-fighter told Dawn that though his team reached the site minutes after receiving the call, it took just under an hour for them to reach the epicentre.

“We had to remove security measures, such as roadblocks, barricades and walk-through gates so that our vehicles could get in. All of this took between 45 minutes to an hour.”

Initially, fire-fighters also tried unsuccessfully to enter the bazaar from Kashmir Highway, and had to be guided by police to Gate 3, which is accessed through H-9’s Service Road East. The delay only exacerbated the damage, a police official said.

There were different theories about how the fire started. Some claimed that the fire from a nearby pile of burning garbage was bellowed by the wind and spread to the stalls.

There were also rumours that a short-circuiting battery was the cause of the fire. A police officer told Dawn that the evidence collected from the scene and eye-witness accounts suggested that the fire was caused by a short-circuiting battery in the garments stalls.

The stalls in question had an independent solar-powered setup, while other stalls drew their power from generators, which only ran on days when the bazaar was open for business.

Investigations

District Magistrate retried Capt Mushtaq Ahmed and Senior Superintendent of Police Sajid Kiani have both constituted separate committees to ascertain the cause, assess damages, and fix responsibility for the incident.

Capital Development Authority (CDA) chief and Islamabad Mayor Sheikh Ansar Aziz also took notice of the incident and directed CDA Director Security Faheem Badshah to hold an inquiry and submit a report as soon as possible.

Mohammad Saeed, who is deputed at Industrial Area police station, was present at the bazaar to collect evidence. He told Dawn that 17 rows in ‘Block C’; one row of single stalls each on the east and west side, and 15 rows of double stalls, all at least eight to 10 feet apart.

“It is strange how the flames managed to leap from one row to the next, which are at least eight feet apart. This will only be explained after a thorough investigation. We will submit our report and after that a case will be registered,” he said.

Fire-fighters’ efforts

Initially, five to six fire engines arrived at the spot and tried to extinguish the fire. However, when it became clear that the blaze was too much for them to handle, assistance were also sought from the Rawalpindi administration, which sent seven fire tenders to help.

CDA was also asked to provide water tankers, and almost all of the capital’s fire response infrastructure descended on the site.

CDA Spokesperson Mazhar Hussain praised the efforts of the fire-fighters and support staff, who managed to bring the blaze under control after more than two hours. Even then, it took another couple of hours for the site to cool down sufficiently for investigators to begin their work.

Eyewitnesses described the aftermath of the inferno, saying that initially, it was very difficult to stand at the site for too long. Others said they could feel the residual heat through their shoes for hours after the fire had been extinguished.

A police officer said that when the fire started, only CDA guards were at the scene. In addition, garbage trucks were emptying skips near Gate 2.

According to the CDA spokesperson, the Directorate of Municipal Administration provided security to the stalls and there was no chance that someone could have deliberately set fire to the bazaar.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2017