Bangladesh building fire kills at least 78, toll could climb as rescuers search charred ruins

Firefighters work at the scene of a fire that broke out at apartment buildings also used as chemical warehouses in Chawkbazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh on Feb 21, 2019.
Firefighters work at the scene of a fire that broke out at apartment buildings also used as chemical warehouses in Chawkbazar, Dhaka, Bangladesh on Feb 21, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (REUTERS, AFP) - The death toll from a fire in a centuries-old area of the Bangladesh capital, Dhaka, jumped dramatically to 78 on Thursday (Feb 21), a fire official said, and could keep climbing as fire fighters combed the wreckage of the destroyed building.

Large building fires are relatively common in impoverished Bangladesh, due in part to lax regulations, and have killed hundreds of people in recent years.

The death toll stood at 78, Dr Sohail Mahmoud, head of the department of forensic medicine at Dhaka Medical College, told reporters according to BBC.

"Up to now, we have 67 bodies in our mortuary and the hospital morgue has 11 dead bodies," he said.

The fire started in a four-storey building around 10.40pm on Wednesday (12.40am Thursday morning, Singapore time) and spread to nearby buildings in the Chawkbazar area of Old Dhaka, which dates back to the Mughal period more than 300 years ago.

Rahman said at least 50 people had been taken to hospital, some in critical condition. Hundreds of people rushed to the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital to search for missing relatives, witnesses said.

About 200 firefighters fought for more than five hours to bring the blaze under control. They told reporters the building where the fire began had housed a plastics warehouse and contained flammable material.

Dozens of people were trapped in the buildings, unable to escape onto narrow streets clogged with traffic, as the highly combustible stores of chemicals, body sprays and plastic granules erupted in flames.

 
 

Rahman said the cause was still under investigation.

He said firefighters had struggled to find enough water to fight the blaze and had to draw supplies from a nearby mosque.

The fire is likely to focus attention on lax enforcement of building safety regulations in Bangladesh, where accidents kill hundreds every year.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 killed more than 1,100 workers and a fire in a garment factory in 2012 killed 112 people.

Bangladesh's fire service chief Ali Ahmed said the blaze might have originated from a gas cylinder before quickly spreading to adjoining buildings which were also used as chemical warehouses.

"There was a traffic jam when the fire broke out. It spread so quickly that people could not escape," he said.

Witnesses said members of a bridal party in a nearby community centre were also caught in the fire and many of them were injured.

 
 

"The victims included passers-by, some people who were eating food at a restaurants and some members of the bridal party," Deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ibrahim Khan said.

Mr Sohag Hossain, one of the injured, told the Daily Star that he and two of his friends were working at a plastic factory in one of the buildings at the time of the fire.

Suddenly, they heard a huge noise. They tried to flee but could not escape the fire.

A similar fire in 2010 in an old Dhaka building, which was also used as a chemical warehouse, killed more than 120 people in one of the worst fire tragedies in Dhaka.

After that fire, Dhaka city authorities launched a crackdown on chemical warehouses in residential areas, but in recent years the drive ground to a total halt.