I was coming back from the airport last week and one of the highway flyovers launches traffic into the air and sweeps south toward the city. As we made the turn there was a solid plume of black rising into the sky. From afar, it looked like an entire city block was burning. I wondered about some terrorist incident as we’re all conditioned to do, I guess.
One thing about Jakarta is they haven’t really gotten into the whole 24 hour news cycle. You can’t flip on the radio and hear second by second coverage. TV crews aren’t out scouring a neighborhood for the edentulous of the world so they may garble a statement into a microphone.
I asked the cabbie what was going on. “Looks like a fire.” he said. Yep.
I read in the paper a day or two later that it was a fairly large apartment/housing area that caught fire. It was a pretty densely populated area. The fire started via short circuit, they thought and quickly swept through the complex. This happens quite commonly. In some places during rainstorms, water drains out the outlets in the walls and onto the floor.
Fire trucks couldn’t get close enough, because of the narrow streets and there are no hydrants, so they used an old fashioned bucket brigade to pull water out of the river to help fight the blaze. Given the condition of the water who knows if they helped or hindered their cause.
3000 people were left homeless. 1200 homes were destroyed. It is that densely populated. Do keep in mind that the homes were maybe the size of a dining room.
Perhaps miraculously, only one 18 year old man lost his life. A lot of people lost everything. But perhaps sadder than being made homeless by a fire, I read where one man gathered his property and all his remaining belongings and sold the lot for $23 dollars and left town. Yes, he left town with nothing but $23.00.
Four days later, we were riding to work and we came upon a 20 story building that was a total inferno right there on the city’s main street. Flames licking up the side of the building. Glass and metal tumbling to the ground. There were fire trucks there and lots of people craning their necks to the sky, but no apparent water was being sprayed that we could see. It looked like a total loss.
Many locals speculate that because it was a government building, the fire was arson in an attempt to cover up some sort of corruption. Corruption has been big in the news here lately. The newspapers wouldn’t speculate. The fire spread it seems, because the pump that was supposed to supply the sprinklers was broken that day, so no water flowed.
I’m told by a colleague who watched from across the street, that they tried to extend their ladder as high as it would go and spray water, but it wouldn’t reach. Then they tried to spray water from the building next door but it couldn’t reach. 25 fire trucks were on the site at one time and they fought this blaze for 18 hours before they got it under control.
The city of Jakarta has vowed to step up inspections of fire safety systems, saying that building owners have been far too slack for far too long. The crackdown will begin immediately and those that are found in violation will receive a sticker.
Said sticker will be required to be placed on the front door to serve as a warning to those who may rent or use the building that the premises are not safe from fire.
All the talk of lack of fire safety has reinforced a fear in our youngest. “I am terrified that something dreadful will happen to one of us and we are going to be totally screwed and we’ll die wherever we fall. I mean we’re living on the ring of fire!”
Indeed all week, everywhere I go, I’ve found my eyes drifting upwards looking hopefully for sprinklers or fire extinguishers only to to be disappointed. I’ve seen long hallways with an exit only at one end. Our dog searches in vain for a fire hydrant on the street. All the stuff that we sort of take for granted and ignore. None of it is there.
To be sure, I’m gonna start looking for that sticker.
(Photos courtesy of Jakarta Globe and Jakarta Post)