Building Tragedy Reverberates Through Baku

Both the construction company and city authorities are blamed for disaster.

Building Tragedy Reverberates Through Baku

Both the construction company and city authorities are blamed for disaster.

Friday, 7 September, 2007
The disastrous collapse of a multi-storey apartment block in Baku has not only cost innocent lives, but has sent political shockwaves through the city.

On August 28, a newly-built and still uninhabited 16-storey block of flats collapsed just before six in the evening on Mukhtarov Street, right in the centre of Baku. Witnesses say fragments of the building fell on neighbouring houses and on cars parked nearby. For a long time, the surrounding area was engulfed in a cloud of dust.

Initial reports suggested that 30-35 people – mainly builders and decorators putting the final touches to flats inside the apartment block – might be trapped under the ruins. Rescue teams saved four people and recovered 18 bodies from the debris. Among the dead were a woman and child, who appeared to have been passers-by.

Telman Askerov’s son Valeh is among those still under the ruins. Ever since the building collapsed, Askerov, an Azerbaijani refugee from the Lachin region near Nagorny Karabakh, has remained constantly at the site waiting for news.

“He graduated from the Oil Academy of Azerbaijan, but couldn’t find work in his profession,” said Askerov. “A month ago, he got himself a job doing up a flat on the 11th floor.”

If Valeh’s death is confirmed, it will be the second tragedy to befall the Askerov family. Another son named Sohrab was killed in the Karabakh war at the age of 22. His parents never recovered his body, and hope they will at least find that of their other son.

President Ilham Aliev has set up a government commission to handle the aftermath of the accident and help the families of those who died.

Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov, who arrived on the scene shortly after the collapse, has launched a criminal prosecution against Ali Muradov, director of the Mutafakkir company which was doing the building work. Three other company officials have also been detained.

Initially, the management of the building company argued that the collapse was triggered by an external event such as an explosion or an earthquake. But this was quickly dismissed.

Arif Hasanov, director general of Azerbaijan’s Seismology Centre, said no earthquake was recorded in Baku at the moment the building came down.

A row has now developed about who had authorised the construction of the multi-storey building in the first place.

Ali Aliev, head of the geological and environmental monitoring centre at Azerbaijan’s environment and natural resources ministry, said, “Geologically, the territory is unfit for the construction of a multi-storey building. It’s wrong to build 18-storey blocks of flats here. Buildings here should be no more than 10 storeys high.”

Experts from the emergencies ministry attributed the collapse to poorly-laid foundations and shoddy building work.

The disaster has exposed a dangerous side to the high-rise building boom that Baku has been undergoing in the last few years as oil revenues pour into the economy. Experts have been warning for some time that poor planning policies and inadequate safety standards are putting lives at risk.

Ten days before the Mukhtarov Street disaster, an unfinished two-storey building came crashing down at the Naples holiday centre, killing two workers. The owner has been charged with breaking safety regulations.

Baku’s city hall has been critical of the construction companies, but it has come under fire itself.

“We did not give permission to construct a building here,” mayor Hajibala Abutalibov told journalists has he stood near the ruins on Mukhtarov Street.

This statement has been ridiculed by some observers.

Abutalibov’s predecessor Fuad Musayev, who was first secretary of the Baku committee of Azerbaijan’s Communist Party at the end of the Soviet era, insists the authorities could not have been unaware of a multi-storey building being constructed in the city centre.

“Everybody knows that you can’t bang in a nail without the authorities’ permission, as otherwise you have to explain to the police, housing –deparment engineers and firemen about what made you think you could do so,” he told IWPR. “And here we have a 16-storey giant, which they say was built without permission. That’s utterly impossible!”

Musayev argued that even if the mayor did not know about the building on Mukhtarov Street, he still bore responsibility for it and should consider resigning.

Experts say that despite the disaster, the construction boom in Baku will continue, though perhaps less intensively than before. Demand for accommodation remains high in Azerbaijan, with the outstanding need for housing put at four million square metres compared with the 1.3 million square metres built over the last few years.

Nusret Ibrahimov, head of Members of the Property Market, a non-government group, said people may now look for alternative forms of housing instead of new apartment blocks.

“It’s quite possible that the number of building projects will contract after this collapse,” he said.

A dispute is now beginning about compensation for owners who have lost their apartments in the ruined building, and about who should pay.

Emil Akhundov, a leading construction expert, said that state should step in with better regulation of the housing industry.

“The state should establish a proper system of relationships between the builder and buyer of a flat,” Akhundov told IWPR. “Elsewhere in the world, contracts are registered by a federal or state registration service rather than by a notary, which means that these services can answer to the buyers if disaster strikes.”

The political opposition has taken up the issue, with the Democratic Party blaming the accident on the government.

“The main reason for this tragic incident in the construction sector is abuse of power, corruption and bribe-taking,” said an official statement from the party. “The Democratic Party calls on the government of Azerbaijan to take action to ensure safety in the construction industry and observance of all standards and rules.”

Political analyst Mubariz Ahmedoglu said the tragedy might deepen public distrust of the authorities.

“The authorities should understand that the presidential election is very close,” he said. “If anything like this happens next year, it will reflect on the mood of the electorate. The authorities should also bear in mind that outside forces that are interested in a change of regime could provoke tragedies like this in the future.”

Emil Guliev is a correspondent with Day.Az and Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
Support our journalists