For some, the burning and implosion of the Plasco Building in downtown Tehran was their last fire, their last mission as dedicated firefighters and concerned tenants. It was Hell for many. A father was about retire in the next two months to spend more time with his precious eight year old daughter. A younger man had marriage plans ahead, but for them and others that wretched day in Teheran, all their plans died with them. Sixteen firefighters died. It was not supposed to happen that way. It was an unusual tragedy. The fire was so intense, so explosive, that even the best trained firefighters had no chance of surviving.
The Plasco building rose in 1962 as one of Teheran’s tallest buildings. Its creator was Habib Elghanian, the leader of Iran’s Jewish community. This structure of 17 storeys was considered by many in Iran and even in the wider Middle East as one of the region’s first modern skyscrapers. In recent years some 560 clothing manufacturers and shops settled in the Plasco building, which comprised a notable slice Iran’s employment in the country’s clothing industry. It was therefore a place of financial and business significance.
The fire broke out last January 19th on the ninth and tenth floors. It spread quickly, engulfing the building. But during the first hour, many thought mistakenly that the blaze was under control. Some shopkeepers went back inside to try to save what they could of their wares, and the firefighters followed them. That was a terrible mistake. In another hour, at about 11:30 am, with many people back inside the building, the entire structure collapsed.
For many it look like a smaller version of the World Trade Center buildings after their collapse in New York City. Many were buried deep in the smoking, hot rubble. Just after the collapse the battle to save the firefighters and civilians began. Many firefighter worked continuously, hoping in vain to find victims still alive. But the debris was so widespead and dangerous that it was nine days before all the bodies or what was left of the bodies of 16 firefighters and six civilians were retrieved from the smoking rubble.
In fact, because of the extreme temperatures of up to 600 degrees F., most of the dead could only be identified by DNA tests.
As a photojournalist I arrived just after the collapse. My first thought were of the images I recalled of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was shocked. I photographed for nine days, experiencing the difficult moments the firefighters faced. Many of the victims were their friends, family or colleagues. It all become increasingly difficult. Many came to the site to pray. With the passage of time and the intensity of the fire in the smouldering debris, the search for bodies became harder and the firefighters’ hopes faded. Families were devastated and impatient for the victims and lots of people came to the scene to pray. But on the seventh day many bodies were found, and there was some hope of finding more. In fact, people came from all over Teheran and even other cities in Iran, distributing food and prayers and any aid they could. It was
a scene like no other I had witnessed. A coming together of Iranians to assist their fellow citizens.