By Stephan Uttom and Rock Ronald Rozario
At least 70 people were killed in the old part of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka after a deadly fire engulfed several apartment buildings on the night of Feb. 20.
Although the origin of the blaze is still unknown, police believe it was started by an explosion at a chemical warehouse on the ground floor of a five-story building. Many apartment buildings in the area are used to store chemicals.
Firefighters raced against time to douse the fire overnight at a business-cum-residential area in Chawk Bazar, police inspector general Jabed Patwary told media on Feb. 21.
“A total of 70 bodies have been recovered and dozens of people remain hospitalized. Many are still missing. We fear the death toll might increase,” Patwary said. “We suspect a blast from the warehouse started the fire and then some vehicles using cylinder gases exploded before the fire engulfed nearby buildings, shops and restaurants.”
Eyewitness Muhammad Soinik lost his cousin Muhammad Wasiuddin, 20, in the tragedy. “At around 10.30 p.m. I was in the area and I saw a private car explode, catch fire and jump up several feet from the ground. Several people including my cousin died on the spot immediately. Then the fire spread to the chemical warehouse nearby and to adjacent buildings quickly,” Soinik told ucanews.com.
The tragedy came only hours before Bangladeshi people started observing International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21 to pay tribute to the language movement martyrs of 1952 who shed blood to establish Bangla as the state language, defying the then Pakistani government.
Deadly fires are not uncommon in Bangladesh. On Feb. 17, nine people died and dozens were injured after a fire razed 200 slum dwellings in the southeastern port city of Chittagong.
In 2012, about 110 workers died after the Tazreen Fashions garment factory caught fire in the Ashulia industrial belt of Dhaka. In 2010, an explosion at a chemical warehouse in the Nimtoli area of Dhaka saw 124 people perish in a deadly blaze.
The Nimtoli blaze triggered a massive public outcry demanding the relocation of chemical warehouses from Old Dhaka. The ruling Awami League government promised to shift about 800 chemical warehouses but it failed to keep its pledge.
“After the Nimtoli tragedy, the government assured the warehouses would be moved, but nothing happened. If the warehouses had gone, we should not have seen another such tragedy,” Soinik said.
Police official Patwary said the chemical warehouses should be driven out of the city. “All concerned government agencies would work with police to make Old Dhaka free from chemical warehouses,” he said.
Dhaka has been estimated to house about 1,000 chemical factories that have long been regarded as a ticking time bomb. Around 850 are illegal, according to the environmentalist group Poribesh Banchao Andolon.
A survey by Bangladesh’s fire department two years ago found 360 chemical warehouses in residential buildings in two neighborhoods.