DHAKA: Fire and explosions that ripped through apartment buildings packed with illegal chemical stores killed at least 70 people in the Bangladeshi capital which was left stunned by its latest disaster.
The inferno started in a building where chemicals for deodorants and other household uses were stocked amid apartments. It spread at lightning speed to four nearby blocks, the fire service said.
Chemical fireballs set ablaze the clogged narrow streets even engulfing passengers on rickshaws in flames. Witnesses told of harrowing scenes as people became trapped by flames at a bridal party and in restaurants.
Bangladesh fire chief Ali Ahmed gave a death toll of 70. Doctors said at least 10 of the scores of injured were in critical condition.
Hundreds of firefighters who took almost 12 hours to bring the fire under control went through the blackened floors of the building, littered with spray cans, looking for bodies.
"We found 24 bodies in one corner of a building and another nine bodies at a pharmacy where the shutters were down," firefighter Shariful Islam said at the scene.
"They thought they would survive by bringing down the shutters."
The fire started late on Wednesday night (Feb 20) in the Chawkbazar trading district in the old Mughal part of the capital.
Ahmed said it may have been started by a gas cylinder and quickly spread because of the chemicals stored in rooms alongside the apartments.
Authorities promised a crackdown after a similar blaze in 2010, in an old Dhaka building also used as a chemical warehouse, that killed more than 120 people. But no effective action was taken, according to critics.
"After the warehouse owners, the city corporation and the law enforcers are mainly to blame for this," said Abu Naser Khan, head of the POBO citizens lobby group.
Chemicals were also stored in the nearby buildings which exploded in a chain as the fire spread.
"It spread so quickly that people could not escape," the fire chief said.
Fire trucks had struggled in the narrow streets to reach the scene and there was a lack of water for the battle, officials said.
The main gate of one five storey building was also chained up, trapping residents inside, according to images shown on Bangladesh television.
'FLAMES WERE EVERYWHERE'
Members of a bridal party in a nearby community centre were caught in the fire and many were injured along with customers in small restaurants, police said.
"I saw the charred body of a woman who was holding her daughter in her lap as their rickshaw was caught in the fire," said one witness.
Haji Abdul Kader, whose shop was destroyed, survived the blaze as as he had left to go to a pharmacy.
"When I was at the pharmacy, I heard a big bang. I turned back and saw the whole street, which was jam packed with cars and rickshaws, in flames. Flames were everywhere," he told AFP.
Haji Mohammad Salahuddin, among those critically injured, told how he saw bolts of fire fall from the sky, setting ablaze the narrow road clogged with cycle rickshaws, vans and cars.
"The explosions were so loud it was like a war. The chemical jars were exploding in the upper floors and fireballs were falling on the streets," he told AFP.
"I saw bodies burning all over the road."
Doctors at Dhaka Medical College Hospital said at least 55 people were injured, including 10 in a critical condition.
Hundreds of people rushed to the hospital looking for missing relatives. Most of the dead were charred beyond recognition however.
Chawkbazar is one of Dhaka's largest trading hubs and residents said most of the buildings in the area were used to store goods and chemicals.
"We have warned them. But it fell on deaf ears. You can make good money by renting out building floors for chemical storage," said one resident, speaking on condition of anonymity.