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Scores killed, dozens injured as fire roars through buildings in crowded section of Bangladesh capital

Dhaka, Bangladesh -- A devastating fire raced through densely packed buildings in a centuries-old shopping district in Bangladesh's capital, killing at least 81 people, officials and witnesses said Thursday.

The fire in Dhaka's Chawkbazar area was mostly under control after more than 10 hours of frantic firefighting efforts. Some of the about 50 people injured were critically burned.

The district dating to the Mughal era 400 years ago is crammed with buildings separated by narrow alleys, with residences commonly above shops, restaurants or warehouses on the ground floors. Denizens of the Muslim-majority nation throng to Chawkbazar each year for traditional goods to celebrate iftar, when the daily fast is broken during Ramadan.

"I was talking to a customer, suddenly he shouted at me: 'Fire! Fire!'" said Javed Hossain, a survivor who came to assess the damage to his grocery store Thursday afternoon. "I said 'Oh, Allah,' in a fraction of a second the fire caught my shop."

Hossain's brother took his hand and they leaped onto the street before the shop was engulfed in flames.

Outside the gutted store, the road was strewn with charred vehicles, pieces of still-burning metal and plastics and hundreds of cans of body deodorant. 

The blaze started late Wednesday night in one building but quickly spread to others, fire department Director General Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed said.

Debris are seen outside the burnt warehouse at Chawkbazar in Dhaka
Debris is seen outside burnt warehouse in Chawkbazar section of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on February 21, 2019 MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN / REUTERS

Many of the victims were trapped inside the buildings, said Mahfuz Riben, a control room official of the Fire Service and Civil Defense in Dhaka.

"Our teams are working there but many of the recovered bodies are beyond recognition. Our people are using body bags to send them to the hospital morgue, this is a very difficult situation," he told The Associated Press.

The fire services director, Maj. AKM Shakil Newaz, said 70 dead had been recovered and were taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Ambulances were arriving carrying bodies, and relatives were mourning in front of the morgue.

One of the relatives of victims of a fire incident mourns outside Dhaka Medical College Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh
One of the relatives of victims of a raging fire incident mourns outside Dhaka Medical College Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh on February 21, 2019 MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN / REUTERS

First responders were delayed reaching the site for various reasons, including the closing of roads as part of national holiday commemorations on Thursday. Just after midnight as the fire blazed, Bangladesh's prime minister and president laid wreaths at a monument less than a mile away to commemorate protesters who died in a 1952 demonstration.

Fire officials said the road closures worsened traffic, slowing down some of the fire trucks traveling to the site.

Most buildings in Chawkbazar are used both for residential and commercial purposes despite warnings of the potential for high fatalities from fires after one killed at least 123 people in 2010. Authorities had promised to institute regulations for the buildings and remove chemical warehouses from the residential buildings.

General view outside the burnt warehouse at Chawkbazar in Dhaka
General view outside burnt warehouse in Chawkbazar district of Dhaka, Bangladesh, February 21, 2019 MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN / REUTERS

A government eviction drive in Chawkbazar and other areas of Old Dhaka was met with protests last May right before Eid, the beginning of Ramadan, by business owners and residents.

Dr. Md. Manjur Morshed, an assistant professor of urban planning at Khulna University of Engineering and Technology in Khulna, 173 miles southwest of Dhaka, said government regulations are routinely flouted in Chawkbazar.

"This is a historic area with a distinct culture," he said. "They are not really abiding by the government's rules." 

Such tragedies are shockingly common in Bangladesh, where fires, floods, ferry sinkings and other disasters regularly claim dozens of lives or more.

In 2012, a fire raced through a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, killing at least 112 people trapped behind its locked gates. Less than six months later, another building housing garment factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.

The death toll from the latest fire could still rise as the condition of some of the injured people was critical, said Samanta Lal Sen, head of a burn unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

Sen said at least nine of the critically injured people were being treated in his unit.

Witnesses told local TV stations that many gas cylinders stored in the buildings continued to explode one after another. They said the fire also set off explosions in fuel tanks of some of the vehicles that got stuck in traffic in front of the destroyed buildings.

Some reports suggested many of the dead were pedestrians, shoppers or diners who died quickly as several gas cylinders exploded, and the fire engulfed the nearby buildings very quickly.

Officials said the firefighters struggled to get close to the scene because of heavy traffic and narrow alleys that were busy when the fire started.