Azerbaijan: Who’s to Blame for Deadly Blaze in Baku?
Some of Baku’s faux exteriors, often jerry-built to glamorize drab, Soviet-era buildings, are being pulled down after a deadly fire in the Azerbaijani capital on May 19 took an estimated 15 lives and wounded dozens. Officials have blamed the blaze, which consumed a 16-storey apartment-building, on inflammable, low-quality material used to fit old structures with handsome, new facades.
Local news reported trapped residents jumping to their death from the burning high-rise in the Binagadi district. Harrowing footage shows friends and families rushing to the scene and arguing with police who blocked access to the building. Scores of apartment-dwellers were hospitalized for burns and smoke-poisoning.
Murisif Makhmudov, the head of the company, Global Construction, which allegedly put the facing on the building, has been charged with the use of low-quality materials and was arrested on May 19, news agencies have reported.
Outrage over the incident, strongly expressed on Facebook, is running strong and building. Five children, including a one-and-a-half-year-old, died in the fire. Sick of rampant corruption, many Azerbaijanis see this tragedy as the result of many officials and businesspeople’s willingness to go cheap on building materials or blind on safety standards. This was the second Baku-fire this year blamed on polyurethane-based sidings.
On May 20, such veneers were already reportedly being pulled down from 14 various buildings. Some Baku-residents began pulling down the sidings themselves. Others attempted to block ongoing renovation projects.
For the government, the blaze, which grabbed international news-space, occurred at an awkward time. One outspoken government critic, the Berlin-based Meydan TV, claims that the fire has touched off safety concerns about construction for the European Games, a continent-wide mini-Olympics that Baku will host on June 12-28.
"Currently, Azerbaijan is in the spotlight of the whole world," observed Hajibala Abutalibov, Baku's presidentially appointed mayor, Trend reported. "First of all, we ourselves should protect our country.”
He added that “It shouldn’t be ruled out" that the May-19 fire was "sabotage" intended to undermine the European Games. “However, our main task is to determine the causes of incident."
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has set a 48-hour deadline for inspections of the 140 Baku-buildings, which, according to official figures, make use of sidings like the one involved in the Binagadi-fire , Trend said.
Posting photos of the rescue of one tiny baby from the building destroyed on May 19, pro-government news agencies have praised the undoubted courage of firefighters and police in responding to the fire.
But they have not yet focused on the larger question of how widespread the use of shoddy materials in Baku's buildings actually is — and why.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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