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Fire Ravages Densely Populated Part Of Dhaka

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fire has ripped through a densely populated section of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. And it has killed dozens of people. With poor building codes and crowded structures, the capital city has a history of particularly deadly accidents. Jeff Gettleman is the South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times. He joins us from his base in New Delhi.

Hi, Jeff.

JEFF GETTLEMAN: Hi there.

GREENE: What exactly happened in this fire?

GETTLEMAN: So last night, a car that was carrying a compressed natural gas cylinder in its trunk blew up. A lot of small cars in this part of the world use compressed natural gas as fuel. And in this case, this car was carrying a cylinder. It blew up right as it was driving through a really crowded neighborhood. And there were other gas cylinders on the street that exploded. The fire quickly spread into apartment buildings. And in some of these apartment buildings on the ground floor are shops and businesses that store chemicals, paints, plastic compounds to make plastics. And all of a sudden, there was an enormous fireball just sweeping through this neighborhood, engulfing buildings, rickshaws, cars - anything in its path.

GREENE: Is the fire out now or is it still burning at this point?

GETTLEMAN: So it took a while to get the fire out. These neighborhoods are really crowded. The streets are snaky and serpentine and difficult to access. And it took firefighters hours to get there with enough manpower to get it out. But they got it out. Sadly, at least 70 people have died.

GREENE: And we saw a death toll of more than a hundred people in a fire in the same city not so long ago. I mean, it feels like this might just keep happening because of the way these neighborhoods are and the conditions in the city. Is that right?

GETTLEMAN: Well, you have to appreciate how crowded and densely populated Bangladesh is. It's a country of 170 million - one of the biggest nations in the world - packed into a space about the size of the state of Iowa. There are people everywhere. And in these urban areas, you have millions and millions of people squeezed into these neighborhoods where the building codes are very laxly enforced. Corrupt business owners pay off officials and police officers to look the other way. They build buildings cheaply. They don't follow any safety codes.

In this case, they were storing chemicals in residential areas, which is outlawed. But it's not enforced. And this is what we saw in a factory fire in Dhaka, where a hundred people had died, a similar residential fire in 2010 - more than a hundred died. And then a few years ago, there was a enormous building that collapsed, and a thousand people died.

GREENE: So one accident, another, as you say, fire, the collapse of the garment factory that you mentioned - I mean, is this putting pressure on the government to do something about all this?

GETTLEMAN: I think so. I think after every fire, there is a reaction of, why did this happen? How can this happen? We must do something differently to stop it. But the question is follow-through. And I was speaking to an architect today who explained how there was very clear zoning rules in Bangladesh. It's not like these laws aren't on the books. It's just a question of enforcement. And he also said it wasn't a question of poverty. It's a question of greed.

And these business owners that are choosing to store chemicals in residential areas are rich people, probably well-educated, living luxurious lives with lots of money in their - you know, in their bank accounts. And they're making this decision that it's either cheaper or easier to put these chemicals in a place where they could be dangerous. And so you can't just look at Bangladesh as this poor, crowded place and explain everything that way. A lot of it has to do with government regulations and the will to enforce them.

GREENE: Jeff Gettleman is the South Asia bureau chief for The New York Times. Jeff, thanks so much.

GETTLEMAN: Glad to help - thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.