ISLAMABAD, Sept 21: Saturday's horrendous suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel was a security lapse or not, its aftermath certainly exposed weaknesses in disaster management.
For one, the evidently ill-trained and ill-equipped firefighters of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) took more than 10 hours to extinguish the blaze started by the massive explosion.
Fingers are being pointed at the city administration for not learning a lesson from the killer earthquake of October 2005 and the fire that completely destroyed the 16-storey Shaheed-i-Millat Secretariat building at China Chowk in January 2002 because the fire engines were not equipped to fight fires at that height.
Firefighters were unable to reach the top floor as their ladders and water hoses were too short. The result was that the entire record of the interior ministry kept on the top floor was destroyed. Sources told Dawn on Sunday that the command structure of the CDA’s fire-fighting department is incomplete.
Some 30 high-level positions are lying vacant there including commander fire and deputy commander fire and other important skilled staff.
These positions should have been filled by now in accordance with the guidelines framed subsequently by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) for fire-fighting in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.
NDMA chief Lt-Gen (retired) Farooq Ahmed Khan told media on Sunday that despite considerable efforts from his organisation, administrations of the three big cities of the country had done little to empower their firemen with modern training and rescue operations. He said he had also taken the matter with the establishment and cabinet divisions for improving the fire departments of these cities, but their administrations were entangled in administrative issues.
Gen Khan made it clear that “fire-fighting and rescue operations are not part of the duties of the NDMA but of the city administration”.
One cannot doubt the fighting spirit and dedication of the CDA’s around 160 firefighters and 25 drivers who carried out the Marriott rescue operation, their technical capacity to deal with the situation left much to be desired.
Adviser to the Prime Minister on Interior Rehman Malik told reporters here that RDX and TNT were used in the blast. The two explosives, normally used by the military, caused huge fire. He said the CDA firemen were neither trained in fighting such fire nor they expected it.
The RDX is actually the Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine.
According to a security expert, RDX is a white, crystalline solid and is usually used in mixtures with other explosives and plasticisers, Phlegmatisers and desensitisers. It is considered to be the most powerful among the military high explosives.
The World War-II witnessed the massive use of RDX, often in explosive mixtures with TNT or Trinitrotoluene by the Allied forces as the UK had gained self-sufficiency in its production ahead of the war. It is believed that RDX have been used in many bomb plots including some terrorist plots.
The RDX was used in the Mumbai serial bomb blasts of March 12, 1993 which killed around 300 people and injured 1,500 others. Thirteen years later, the city’s suburban trains suffered another RDX attack which killed 209 people and injured over 700 others.
MARRIOTT's OWN FIRE SYSTEM: CDA’s Director Municipal Administration, Momin Agha, told Dawn that the hotel’s own fire system did not work when the fire erupted.
Sprinklers installed in the rooms and in the corridors did not respond to the fire which consumed the furniture, bed sheets, curtains, ACs and televisions, and other things made of plastic caught fire.
None of the 300 rooms of the hotel bore any sign that its internal fire system had worked, according to the CDA official.
Mr Agha praised the firemen for bringing the main fire under control within seven hours. Small and isolated pockets of fire continued to erupt here and there afterwards.
Though the initial fire was caused by the explosives RDX and TNT, he said, the huge blaze inside the hotel was mainly due to the burning of furniture and other things, which required water to be put off.
“We also used foam on fire with blue flames. Had we not saved the Marriott’s boilers from catching fire, the whole building might have caved in,” he told Dawn.
“We would have controlled the fire much earlier if the hotel’s fire system had worked even 10 to 20 per cent,” said Mr Agha.
He said the CDA’s fire department was acquiring new fire-fighting vehicles made in Finland which could raise firemen to altitudes up to 68 metres.
Also the city administration was working on a plan to acquire the help of foreign consultants in organising need-based training for the firefighting crew. He hoped that by the end of this year, CDA’s firefighting department would have acquired some latest vehicles and further trained its crew.