No stranger to tragedy, Iranians renew their passion and compassion in the wake of calamities, such as the fire and collapse of the iconic Plasco Building in central Tehran on the morning of January 19.
The 17-story Plasco, built in 1962 by Habibollah Elghanian, was among the first modern high-rises and shopping centers in the Middle East. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Elghanian — who headed the Iranian Jewish Society and owned another Tehran high-rise, the Aluminum Building — was among the many politicians, businessmen, and religious minorities executed by the new regime.
The Mostazafan Foundation (Foundation of the Dispossessed) created by the government to absorb the assets of the deposed Shah and wealthy private individuals took over the Plasco Building, renting out space to 400-plus businesses. Many of the businesses were fabric manufacturers gearing up for the Iranian New Year and working overtime to produce garments for sale within the next month. The highly flammable fabric in the building accelerated the fire.
Days later, there are not yet clear figures for the total number of dead. Officials are saying that any bodies found under the rubble will have burnt beyond recognition, deeming DNA tests necessary for identifying them. Among those killed were a large number of firemen, who had entered the building to urge people to evacuate.
Out of the 400 businesses in the building, only 160 had insurance. Obtaining insurance for homes and businesses is not mandatory in Iran and many business owners are reluctant to pay annual premiums. While officials say significant safety issues were overlooked by the proprietors as well as by the Mostazafan Foundation, a lot of attention had been given to cosmetics, such as decorative pools.
After the collapse, Iranian authorities argued over who was responsible.
Massoumeh Ebtekar, vice president and the head of Iran’s Environment Protection Agency, criticized the lack of oversight of building safety and poor performance by the Tehran Municipality’s office of Health, Safety and Environment. Her criticism was met with comments that she should focus instead on pollution in major Iranian cities and the number of park rangers killed by poachers around the country.
A single positive point in the tragedy is that the building collapsed vertically, rather than horizontally, so that other neighboring structures were not damaged. Most of the 4000 workers had already evacuated the high-rise when it was shaken by several severe explosions, ending in its collapse.
Business owners tried to remove money and documents from their stores, fearing the worst. Some items, such as metal safes and other valuables, have been pulled out of the rubble and taken to safe places until they are redeemed.
Authorities believe gas tanks and other heat sources were the main cause of the explosions. Unlike most Tehran buildings, Plasco was not heated by piped-in natural gas.
The disaster is likely to have political ramifications and one casualty could be the presidential aspirations of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. Ghalibaf, who lost a bid for the presidency four years ago, was rumored to be considering another run. Ghalibaf has neither confirmed nor denied this, commenting recently that his “duty is to be of service to the country, and it’s not important where.”
Currently serving his third term as mayor, Ghalibaf has been accused of corruption involving construction in Tehran. The mayor defended himself and an architectural magazine that published accusations against him in August was shut down.
After the collapse of Plasco, the hashtag “resignation” became a trend on Iranian Twitter pages (in Farsi) alongside Ghalibaf’s name. The trend dissipated somewhat after the Tehran’s City Council said there had been written warnings delivered to business owners in the building. According to this explanation, the Tehran Municipality and the mayor himself had repeatedly warned landlords and renters in the high-rise about the necessity of taking safety measures. When some critics suggested that issuing warnings was not sufficient, the City Council responded that any further action to close down unsafe businesses would have required cooperation from the Department of Labor.
However, one member of the city council, Mohammad-Mehdi Tondgouyan has told reporters that the municipality could have done more and that there are many areas that require clarification.
Yet another issue is the fire department’s budget, which is lower than the amount the municipality had requested. The Tehran City Council has clarified that this was not a factor in the Plasco tragedy. In general, however, insufficient funds and outdated equipment – partly caused by biting international sanctions Iran was under for a decade – is a persistent problem. Iranian firemen are also among the lowest-paid government employees and far more than expensive gear, they rely on their own bodies and exceptional courage to help people in drastic situations.
Meanwhile, the operation of removing rubble is ongoing. Efforts were slowed by the heat of the rubble, which a day after the tragedy averaged between 200 and 600 degrees Celsius (392 and 1112 degrees Fahrenheit).
In a message, Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, has expressed hope that this tragedy would be “a lesson for the future.” But what lessons should Iranians take?
Tehranis are shaken. Families who have lost loved ones are still in shock and business owners are in disbelief and despair. A group of attorneys in Tehran tweeted an offer to provide free legal help to families. But despite all the sympathy people are showing, as Iranians do in such instances, there is a lack of a unified civil movement to help those affected. People have written on social media that “We will put out the Plasco Building fire with our tears.” Maybe if Iranian NGOs and civilian volunteers were larger in both number and vigilance, there would be more substantial help for the victims and such tragedies could be averted in the future.
Mehrnaz Samimi is a journalist and simultaneous interpreter based in Washington, DC. On Twitter: @MehrnazSamimi