Firefighters battle a blaze that engulfed Iran's oldest high-rise, the 15-storey Plasco building in downtown Tehran on January 19, 2017.
State television said 200 firefighters had been called to the scene and 38 had already been injured battling the blaze before it fell. / AFP / STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Iran: Blaze causes building collapse on TV
01:00 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Shahrzad Elghanayan, a freelance news photo editor, is writing a book about her grandfather, Habib Elghanian, who built the Plasco building. The views expressed are her own.

Story highlights

The author writes about her ties to the doomed Plasco building, which her grandfather built

She writes that her grandfather, who grew up poor in Tehran's Jewish ghetto, wanted to modernize Iran

CNN  — 

The mission to put out the fire that engulfed the iconic Plasco building in central Tehran ended in the sudden collapse of the 17-story structure and the deaths of more than 20 firefighters. The towering inferno of death and destruction shocked and saddened Iranians and exiles around the world.

Watching the scene unfold on television last Thursday made my heart sink. For along with the tragic loss of life, a part of Iran’s history was lost, and so was a part of my very own history.

The Plasco was built by my grandfather, Habib Elghanian, and his brothers to become, upon completion in 1962, Tehran’s first high-rise on the capital’s skyline. The brothers named the building after their pioneering plastics manufacturing company, PlascoKar.

The building was as famous as, say, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings but more analogous to New York’s earliest skyscraper, the Woolworth Building.

The entrepreneurial brothers had built the commercial high-rise on land near Tehran’s bazaar and fitted it with a one-of-a-kind shopping mall and commercial office space. Visitors would go to the rooftop of the 17-story building and enjoy 360-degree breathtaking view of Tehran.

The building – which was completed even before the Shah’s 1963 White Revolution that attempted to transform the economy and traditional social system – was cherished as a symbol of Iran’s modernization efforts. Its story, however, embodied the discord between those who wanted to modernize the nation and the clerics who opposed those efforts. The clerics were disdained by the participation of Iran’s Jewish minority, which included my grandfather, in the country’s economic progress. Shortly after Plasco was finished, a Shiite cleric named Mahmoud Taleghani protested over the idea that a Jewish family was the owner of Iran’s tallest building.

Alistair Esfahanizadeh took a picture of the buildling on January 18, 2017 and posted, "I probably took one of the last picturess of the building standing yesterday before the sunset."

But my grandfather, who grew up poor in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto, remained very proud of the building, and continued to contribute to the economy by building an aluminum factory that made refrigerators and expanding his plastic factory, which made consumer products that had not been readily available in Iran.

The self-made entrepreneur loved Tehran and refused to budge when the 1979 Islamic revolution was brewing. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over, my grandfather was imprisoned, put on trial for less than 20 minutes without a lawyer on trumped-up charges of espionage. A firing squad shot him at dawn. His execution, on May 9, 1979, sent shock waves through the Jewish community and most of the estimated 100,000 Jews left in Iran.

And now almost 40 years later, it hurts to watch the loss of innocent lives in the destruction of this tangible part of my family’s legacy. In fact, my grief over the disappearance of this artifact cannot compare to the immense pain of relatives mourning the loss of life in the fire. I received many messages of sympathy, from both inside and outside Iran, evoking my grandfather’s memory.

Accusations of negligence

People were blaming the building’s current owners, the Islamic Revolution Mostazafan Foundation (also known as the Foundation for the Oppressed), which is tied to the powerful paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, who control much of Iran’s wealth.

Though the Elghanian ownership of the building ended in the mid-1970s when Plasco was sold, the state-controlled foundation confiscated the landmark from the new owner during the 1979 revolution.

Instead of preserving the edifice, the building’s new owners allowed what had once been a bright, shining tower of Tehran’s skyline to turn into a ramshackle space, dwarfed and supplanted by thousands of new skyscrapers. Space originally designed for offices had been carved up and converted into hundreds of garment workshops.

Following last week’s tragedy, Tehran municipal spokesman Shahram Gilabadi, speaking to the AFP news agency, said: “More than 30 times we warned the building’s owners that it was not safe, but unfortunately they did not pay attention”.

Iranians watch the Plasco building where smoke rises from its windows in central Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

Fire brigade spokesman Jalal Malekias said: “Even in the stairwells, a lot of clothing is stored and this is against safety standards. The managers didn’t pay attention to the warnings.” The head of the shirt maker’s union, Mojtaba Droodian, told local Fars agency that the fire extinguishers were empty.

Since the collapse of the building, a Twitter hashtag calling for the resignation of Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, over mismanagement was trending in Iran.

The head of the Mostazafan Foundation Saeedi Kia said the foundation had handed all the buillding’s units over to the tenants and therefore didn’t have control of anything apart from the overall ownership of the building. “We wont shun our responsibility in this regard,” he told local media. He also says that they will rebuild the building according to global standards in two years’ time.

If they were aware of the building’s violations, why hadn’t the owners or the city shut Plasco down until it was up to code? Clearly, the owners’ indifference and the abusive sway of their power were at the root of this tragedy. They always loathed the landmark that was built by my family, but the least they could have done was to ensure the safety of the people inside.