At least 70 people were killed as a massive fire on Wednesday night ripped through several multi-storey buildings many of them housing chemical and plastic warehouses in a crammed old part of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka.
The fire broke out at a chemical warehouse on the ground floor of a five-storey building named Hazi Wahed Mansion behind a mosque in Old Dhaka’s congested Chawkbazar area and the flames then quickly spread through four other buildings nearby, including a community centre where a wedding party was on, fire officials said.
Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) officials said the fire spread rapidly due to the multiple chemical godowns that were situated in the area.
The death toll in the massive blaze rose to 70, fire officials said, warning that the toll could rise further as dozens of people were trapped in the buildings and the fire fighters were yet to enter into the main spot where the fire broke out.
“Most of the bodies were retrieved from the houses around that building while fire fighters now prepare to enter into the building, the main spot in search of more bodies,” a police official at the scene said.
Bangladesh's fire service chief Ali Ahmed said the blaze may have started with a gas cylinder before quickly spreading through the building where chemicals were stored.
"The flames raced through four 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.
TV images showed the main gate of one of the buildings was locked, leaving its residents trapped, unable to escape the blaze as it swept through its five storeys.
Witnesses said the victims also included passersby, some people who were eating food at a nearby restaurants and some members of a wedding party.
Over 50 people, including women and children, were also injured and admitted to nearby hospitals, including Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) and Sir Salimullah Medical College Hospital (Mitford Hospital).
Some of the residents were injured after they jumped off the building.
The officials said 37 fire fighting units were moved to the scene but narrow lanes made it difficult for fire engines to reach the spot. The fire fighters used helicopters and long hose pipes to set off the blaze.
The blaze is under control but not completely doused because of flammable chemicals that were being stored in several of the buildings, AKM Shakil Newaz, director of Fire Service and Civil Defence told Bdnews24.
The five-storey building where the fire started is at the risk of collapsing due to damage, according to local media reports.
The first floor of the building was being used as a warehouse of plastic goods, cosmetics and perfume. Some families lived on the upper floors, according to residents.
The ground floor of the building, where the fire originated, had several shops.
The fire from the building immediately caused an electric transformer to explode, which set ablaze several cars parked on the alley. The alley was packed with people because of a wedding ceremony that was being held in the nearby community centre.
An investigation panel has been formed to identify the reason behind the fire.
The fire brings back the terrifying memories of another massive blaze in 2010 in an old Dhaka building, which was also used as a chemical warehouse, that killed more than 120 people in one of the worst fire tragedies in Bangladesh.
It had sparked a public outcry, demanding the relocation of chemical warehouses and stores from the area, but little has been done in the last nine years.