DHAKA (AFP) - A stampede during a Ramadan charity handout killed at least 27 people in Bangladesh on Friday as hundreds of desperately poor people tried to get their hands on free clothing, police said.
The stampede in the northern city of Mymensingh erupted when crowds of people tried to force their way into a factory compound through a small gate after massing outside before dawn, according to local police chiefs.
Television footage from the site showed scenes of utter devastation, with hundreds of torn and blood-spattered sandals abandoned at the gate of the chewing tobacco factory, which is located around 120km north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
“Most of the dead are poor and emaciated women,” Kamrul Islam, a senior officer at a police station near the factory, told AFP.
Mymensingh police chief Moinul Haque said at least 50 people were also injured.
Many of the victims were ferried by cycle rickshaws to a nearby hospital with television footage showing relatives rushing through the entrance and corridors, cradling the lifeless bodies of their loved ones in their arms.
“My wife had gone there to collect some clothes for herself and for our children,” Mohammad Robiul, a rickshaw-puller, told the Somoy Television news channel.
“I don’t know what will happen to my kids,” Robiul, who lost his wife in the tragedy, added before bursting into tears.
A witness told the bdnews24 website that the stampede began when a number of people fell to the ground as a melee erupted.
“As the gate was opening, everybody ran towards it, pushing and shoving each other and then they started falling,” said rickshaw-puller Dulal Mia.
“Once one person fell to the ground, another 15 to 20 people fell, too. The people got killed when they closed the gate.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed deep shock over the tragedy, according to the state-run BSS news agency.
In a condolence message, the Prime Minister offered prayers and “conveyed profound sympathy to the bereaved families", the agency said.
Meanwhile, the religious affairs ministry said it would pay each family 10,000 taka (S$170) to cover the cost of the funerals of their relatives.
FACTORY OWNER ARRESTED
Police and local officials said that the owner of the factory and six other people have been arrested for failing to ensure public safety.
“Legal action will be taken against them,” district governor Mustakim Billah told reporters.
A special police committee has been set up to investigate the tragedy and is due to report its findings within the next three days.
Police said up to 1,500 people had massed outside the factory at around 4.45am after the owners had announced they would distribute free clothes to poor people in accordance with Islamic ritual.
Rich Bangladeshis often distribute free clothes to poor people during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on June 19.
But the handouts have sparked several deadly stampedes over the years.
Around 40 people were killed in a similar stampede at a garment factory in the northern city of Tangail in 2002.
Factory safety has been a major issue in Bangladesh since the collapse of a clothing manufacturing complex in April 2013 that left more than 1,100 people dead, making it one of the worst industrial accidents in history.