At least 70 people were killed and over 50 injured as fire and explosions ripped through densely populated apartment buildings packed with unauthorised chemical stores at Chawkbazar in Old Dhaka on Wednesday night. More than 200 firefighters of 39 fire units, along with locals, battled the blaze and brought it under control at 6:30am yesterday, about eight hours after its eruption. The flames were eventually doused at 3pm yesterday.
The fire appeared to be the repetition of the 2010 Nimtoli tragedy that had killed 120 people and burnt over 50 while chemical warehouses in crammed neighbourhoods emerged as the culprit in both the cases. The Nimtoli incident at that time sparked a public outcry, demanding the relocation of chemical warehouses and stores packed with flammable materials from the area and steps too were ordered towards that end.
But Wednesday night’s incident clearly suggests that the measure were not enough to clean an area where people use their houses for business purposes of such ignitable items for years.
According to the Fire Service and Civil Defence officials, the fire broke out at 10:40pm at a five-storey building and it soon spread to four nearby buildings.
Several witnesses said the explosion of a gas cylinder stored in a four-wheeler triggered the fire incident. However, some others said the fire started from the electrical poles in the locality.
The cause of the fire, however, is yet to be ascertained. Three probe committees have been formed to get to the bottom of the blaze.
The industries ministry has formed a 12-member committee, headed by its additional secretary Mofijul Haque, and directed it to submit a report within five days.
Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal visited the spot and directed to set up a probe committee, which will submit a report within a week.
The Fire Service and Civil Defence also has formed a three-member committee, led by Debashis Bardhwan. It has been asked to submit a report within seven days.
The labour ministry has announced that the family of each victim will get Tk. 1 lakh, while Tk. 50,000 will be given to each injured person.
Disaster management and relief minister Dr Md Enamur Rahman handed over Tk. 30 lakh to the victims as compensation.
Road transport and bridges minister Obaidul Quader said the government would compensate the fire victims.
Expressing shock and dismay over the tragedy, environmentalists said they repeatedly asked the authorities to relocate the
chemical and semi-chemical materials from the congested residential areas of old Dhaka. They demanded the relocation of all chemical warehouses from the locality.
Meanwhile, President Md Abdul Hamid, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chawdhury and opposition leader HM Ershad have expressed deep shock at the tragedy. Most of the bodies recovered from the scene were charred beyond recognition. The bodies were sent to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) morgue.
Although The Independent confirmed from different sources the death of at least 70 people, government sources confirmed that at least 67 people have perished in the deadly fire. The DMCH authorities have started handing over the bodies immediately after their identification by relatives.
They said they needed to carry out DNA tests for the charred bodies that could not be identified.
“All unidentified corpses will be subjected to DNA testing,” Sohel Mahmud, head of forensics at Dhaka Medical College, said.
As there were inflammable products in the area, the fire spread quickly engulfing the nearby hotels’ cylinders causing further explosion. It then spread to adjacent buildings.
As Chawbazar is a business hub and it was a holiday, the entire area turned into debris of burnt materials.
Fire fighters and witnesses said as soon as the gas cylinder of a van exploded, the fire spread to a cylinder of a nearby hotel. Four adjacent buildings, including a five-story mosque, caught the flames immediately. The blaze mainly hit Haji Wahed Mansion, a four-storey residential-cum-commercial building at Churihatta, whose second floor was filled with semi-chemicals like body sprays, lotions, shaving foams and air fresheners.
People used to live on the second floor of each of the affected buildings.
The first floor of Haji Wahed Mansion was full of bitumen-plastic, which helped spread the fire, the sources said.
The fire also destroyed at least 40 motorised and non-motorised vehicles, leaving at least 20 people charred on the spot. Sources said the whole area was filled with smoke and there were crackling sounds of the fire. Cries of help could be heard in and around the area. People made desperate attempts to save their relatives and friends trapped in the buildings. The injured were sent to nearby hospitals including Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).
Meanwhile, the health minister directed all the hospitals to treat the injured people. At least 40 seriously burnt people were admitted to the burn unit of the DMCH.
Relatives of the victims rushed to the hospitals and were frantically trying to identify their near and dear ones. As many as 31 people could be identified till 3:42 pm yesterday.
“I was on the other side of Dutta Road. After hearing the bang, we got nervous and saw fire billowing out. We tried to reach the spot, but could not go through the blaze,” said Jewel, an electrician working in the area, with tears rolling down his cheeks.
“After one cylinder exploded, we hear several other bangs due to the blast of other cylinders and perfume canes,” he added. Shariful Islam, a fire inspector, said: “We reached the fire scene after half an hour. We got delayed due to the congested roads.”
“We recovered 20 charred bodies at Dutta Road. The bodies were packed in bags and sent to the DMCH,” he added. Explosive department officer Shamsul Alam said: “The fire broke out due to the explosion of a cylinder. Our team is investigating the incident. Nothing more can be said as of now.”