DHAKA (Reuters) - At least 114 people were killed in a fire that razed a crowded, centuries-old Dhaka neighborhood overnight as rescue workers scrambled on Friday to pull bodies, many charred beyond recognition, from smoldering debris.
The blaze, which broke out about 10.30 p.m., was the worst to sweep through the Bangladeshi capital in almost four decades.
“The confirmed death toll from the fire is now 114 and may rise,” Muhibul Haque, district commissioner of Dhaka, told Reuters. He said more than 40 people were being treated for burns in hospital, with 12 in critical condition.
Fuelling the flames, which some witnesses said rose up to six-storeys high, were chemicals from illegal, home-based factories in the Kayettuli neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in Dhaka and in the heart of the city.
“It seemed like hell broke loose,” said a wailing woman, looking for her daughter and son in what remained of the area, home to several multi-storey blocks and tin-roofed dwellings. Some had been turned into chemical factories despite a law banning their presence in residential areas.
“Burning chemicals from stores within or beside the living quarters spewed on the streets like lava from a volcano. There was hardly any safe place to step out,” added one survivor.
Television channels put the death toll at up to 150, including a dozen people who died in hospital.
The country’s police chief, Nur Mohammad, said it was difficult to give an exact casualty toll until search and rescue operations were finished, likely on Friday afternoon.
Some families lost up to eight members, witnesses said, and many residents were trapped trying to rush out of buildings.
“Flames leapt up to the sixth floor of buildings. It was a huge inferno,” said a Reuters witness.
The blaze, believed to have been caused by an explosion at a electrical transformer, was the worst in the capital since 1971, the fire brigade said.
“I never have had such a harrowing experience in my 40 years here,” said a doctor at the burns unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, as patients crammed the corridors and sobbing relatives searched for loved ones.
Hospitals, strained by the high casualty toll, began handing back corpses to relatives able to identify them. “Some of the bodies lying in the morgue are charred beyond identification,” one police officer said.
Firefighters said narrow streets and the density of the buildings hampered access and the chemicals in the area helped the fire spread quickly.
The government has ordered an investigation to determine the exact cause of the fire.
Jahangir Kabir Nanak, State Minister for local government, said the lack of proper fire escapes in many buildings contributed to the high death toll. “We should have better planned homes and wider roads to save lives,” he said.