At least 72 people have died in a huge fire that tore through apartment buildings also used as chemical warehouses in an old part of the Bangladeshi capital, a fire official said Thursday.
Many 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.
The flames raced through four adjoining buildings, which were also used as chemical warehouses.
The fire broke out around 11.00pm (17:00 GMT) on Wednesday, has been confined but not yet put out, despite the efforts of over 200 firefighters.
Bangladesh’s fire service chief Ali Ahmed said the death toll was expected to rise. The number of dead bodies may increase and the search is still going on.
Ahmed said the blaze at Chawkbazar in the old part of Dhaka might have originated from a gas cylinder before quickly spreading through a building where chemicals were stored.
“There was a traffic jam when the fire broke out. It spread so quickly that people could not escape,” he said, describing a part of town where the streets are very narrow and the residential buildings stand inches apart.
Witnesses said members of a bridal party in a nearby community centre were also caught in the fire and many of them were injured.
Deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ibrahim Khan said at least two cars and 10 cycle rickshaws were burned in the fire.
“The victims included passersby, some people who were eating food at restaurants and some members of the bridal party,” he said.
“It will take time. This is not like any other fire,” he said, adding the inferno became so devastating due to the “highly combustible” chemicals stored there.
Hundreds of people rushed to the hospital to look for their missing relatives.
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.
Bangladesh has a persistent problem with building safety regulations not being followed. Dhaka city authorities launched a crackdown on chemical warehouses in residential areas, but in recent years the drive ground to a total halt.