The recent fire that destroyed the four upper storeys of the Attaba Telephone Exchange building in Downtown Cairo, and which caused damages to nearby buildings as well, is not the first and will not be the last of the fires that are systematically targeting the economic welfare of this nation. Huge losses are inflicted on precious facilities and infrastructure as we stand by, apparently doing nothing. We still await the reports of the prosecution and the criminological laboratory on the losses and damages in the Attaba Telephone Exchange and the nearby Attaba Traffic Department where valuable official papers or files may have been damaged or lost. Ironically, what was not eaten up by the flames was finished up by the waters during the firefighting effort; in all cases, unwitting consumers will be paying the price.
No matter the cause of the fire—whether structural, technical, criminal or even terrorist—one common factor stands out: our public buildings, facilities, and factories direly lack safety and security measures. This means that, in the absence of alarm or protection systems to avert calamity, they represent time bombs ready to go off any moment. And when one such bomb does go off and fire or disaster strikes, we wake up from our stupour to repeat the same questions as always: was the building equipped with effective alarm and firefighting systems? Were there fire extinguishers and water tanks ready for the firefighting effort? Did the industrial safety department in those buildings include trained personnel who conducted periodical drills and maintained the firefighting equipment in top working condition? Did the industrial safety department test the swift, safe evacuation of the building so that in the event of fire there would be no terror, confusion, stampede or injury? More importantly, was there an accessible proper study of the building’s construction and its structural components and materials, networks and systems, and interior decoration, in order to determine the best materials to use to put out a fire? This would have obviously minimised damages to the building and/or its contents in the process of extinguishing the fire, In the case of a vital facility—the Attaba Telephone Exchange is a case in point—was there a system to isolate every one of its departments or floors once the fire erupted, through automatic fireproof gates for instance, to prevent the fire reaching it?
The answers to all the previous questions is ‘no’; had it been ‘yes’, the Attaba calamity could have been averted. But the fire erupted, spread, and got out of control. The firefighters came in, and it took them some 10 hours to put out the fire. The exceptionally hot weather led the fire to erupt again even while the firefighters were cooling the walls. Four floors were burnt out, the building and its contents suffered huge damages. Later, the experts came in to inspect the place and find out what started the fire. They also studied the after-effects of the fire and inspected the two close-by buildings of Attaba Traffic Department and the Emergency Police.
All these stories made the headlines, but they only depicted familiar episodes of the calamitous story Egyptians are by now used to hearing in the wake of any fire. Yet the experts and structural engineers are horror-stricken because they fully understand that it does not have to be this way, there are ways to avert the calamity. The fire could be managed before it spreads and gets out of control. Measures could be taken to secure the building and all its contents and, more importantly, the workers inside and those who frequent it. It might even not be necessary to resort to the firefighters; matters could be brought under control before that. We should not be reading about catastrophes such as that which occurred at Attaba.
The real disaster lies in the state of apathy that seems to engulf us, and the subsequent failure by the State to take to account those in charge of the building struck with fire. The Attaba fire is not the first and will not be the last as long as we persist in the state of lack of concern to which we have become almost addicted.
A Hadith—a quote from sayings by the Prophet Muhammad—that has become folk wisdom in Egypt goes: “No believer is stung out of the same hole [as in scorpion hole] twice”. This means that one learns from mistakes and avoids their recurrence; one cannot be fooled twice. The way we deal with matters, however, we’re fooled a thousand times yet we don’t learn.
23 August 2015