3 killed, 5 hurt in blast at Sitakunda scrapyard Death tolls may rise

November 10, 2004

near chittagongAt least three people died and five others received burns injury, one critically, in a fire fed by a gas explosion during scrapping of an old ship at a ship-breaking yard at Sitakunda yesterday, police and local sources said. Unconfirmed sources, however, put deaths in the accident at five. Local sources claimed that 'a few' workers have remained unaccounted for since then and that the death toll may rise. The dead are fitting foreman Sekander, 40, of Tulatoli of Sitakunda, and Majnu, 27, of Mathbaria in Pirojpur and Kajal, 22, of Habiganj. The injured were rushed to Chittagong Medical College and Hospital (CMCH) and the local health complex. Critically injured Bidhan Das alias Bidhu, 33, of Guyanpanchak under Boirag union of Anwara in the district was admitted into the CMCH.

Scrapping of MV Ocean was going on at the shipyard, owned by ZN Enterprise at Madambibirhat under the upazila, at around 2:00pm when the incident happened, according to the police and witnesses. Witnesses said that the workers were trapped inside the vessel after the explosion. Fire brigade personnel and police aided by local people launched rescue operations after the blaze was doused at around 4:30pm. They recovered charred bodies of the three and rescued the injured, sources said.

Bidhu told The Daily Star at CMCH yesterday evening that they were cutting an oil pipe of the vessel when the blast occurred. He could not say what happened later. Police and fire service sources said the ship caught fire due to a gas explosion.

The vessel was brought for scrapping to the ship-breaking yard around six months ago and a part of it was already cut after its arrival. Scrapping resumed yesterday after it remained suspended for around five months, sources said (Daily Star, November 10, 2004)..

Ship breaking risks

Ship breaking is a hazardous operation as it is; in our country for whatever reason it has become more so. Casualties are frequent, safety measures are lax and entrepreneurs/owners do not learn from past tragic experience. Ship breaking began in this country in 1976 and it has great economic potential. The need is to make the operation safer. In the latest case three workers were killed and two others were injured on Tuesday at ZN Enterprise Ship Breaking Yard at Sitakundu in Chittagong. The accident occurred when the oil tanker caught fire as the workers were cutting the ship with gas. Of the eight workers who were thus engaged three were able to escape and three were trapped.

The ship was an old oil tanker. When an oil pipe in the ship was being cut the gas which had accumulated within the pipe was suddenly released with an explosion and fire engulfed the whole ship. Four years ago 16 workers were burnt alive and 50 others received serious burns at the same ship breaking yard when an oil tanker caught fire during the operation.

It can be presumed that the workers who are engaged in the operation are casual workers and so are not covered by the minimum security provisions. It has been alleged in a report in a Bangla daily that no effort was made to rescue the trapped victims. The accident occurred at around 1 pm but it was not before 8 pm that the fire service was able to control the fire. Under the rules, before starting ship breaking clearance has to be obtained from explosives department; but this formality was shortcircuited. As repeated accidents are taking place at the same ship breaking yard, accountability of the owners cannot be overlooked

In this case, it is alleged, after the accident when Sitakundu Thana police visited the spot they tried to strike a deal with the owners so that the latter might not become liable to pay compensation. To lend a further irony to the tragedy, at the time it occurred two NGOs were organising a dialogue at a hotel not far from the scene on how to ensure safety of workers engaged in ship breaking.

Workers' safety and security does not seem to be a priority in the industrial sector. Safety does not only mean workman's compensation insurance and other risk coverage but the necessary safety apparatus, dress, shoes, gloves, mask, helmet and gear for those who handle risky procedures. It is sometimes found, for example, that electricity workers perform their task un-gloved. The workers themselves who launch movements for enhanced pay and bonuses show indifference to questions of work safety (Editorial, The Independent, November 11, 2004).

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