At least 49 people died and hundreds were injured after a fire sparked a huge chemical explosion at a shipping container depot in Bangladesh, officials said yesterday.
The toll was expected to rise, with some of the more than 300 people injured in serious condition, officials said, while volunteers reported that there were more bodies inside the smouldering, wreckage-strewn facility.
The fire started late on Saturday at the depot in Sitakunda, which stores around 4,000 containers, many filled with garments destined for Western retailers.
The facility is about 40km from the major southern port of Chittagong.
The blaze caused containers holding chemicals to explode, engulfing firefighters, volunteers and journalists in an inferno, hurtling people and debris through the air, and turning the night sky a blazing orange.
Buildings located kilometres away rattled with the force of the blast.
Elias Chowdhury, regional chief doctor, said that the number of dead was 49 but would likely increase.
“The death toll will rise as the rescue work has not been completed yet,” Chowdhury said. “These people - including several journalists who were doing Facebook lives - are still not accounted for.”
Firefighters continued to douse pockets of fire yesterday afternoon, with television footage showing smoke still billowing from some containers, more than 19 hours after the fire began.
Reazul Karim, operations director of the fire department, said that at least seven firefighters died and at least four others were missing.
“Never in our fire department history have we lost so many firefighters in a single incident,” Bharat Chandra, a former senior firefighter, said.
“There are still some bodies inside the fire-affected places. I saw eight or 10 bodies,” one volunteer told reporters.
Mujibur Rahman, the director of B M Container Depot, the firm operating the facility with around 600 workers, said that the cause of the initial fire was still unknown.
The container depot held hydrogen peroxide, fire service chief brigadier general Main Uddin told reporters. “We still could not control the fire because of the existence of this chemical,” he said.
Mohamed Ali, 60, who runs a nearby grocery store, said the blast was deafening. “A cylinder flew around half a kilometre from the fire spot to our small pond when the explosion occurred,” he said.
“The explosion sent fireballs into the sky. Fireballs were falling like rain. We were so afraid we immediately left our home to find refuge...We thought the fire would spread to our locality as it is very densely populated,” he added.
Lorry driver Tofael Ahmed was standing inside the depot when the explosion occurred.
“The explosion just threw me some 10 metres from where I was standing,” he said. “My hands and legs are burned.”
Chowdhury, the chief doctor in Chittagong, said the injured had been rushed to different hospitals as doctors were brought back from holiday to help.
Requests for blood donations for the injured flooded social media.
The army said it had deployed 250 troops to prevent chemicals flowing into the Indian Ocean by using sandbags.
Fires are common in Bangladesh due to lax enforcement of safety rules.
Around 90% of Bangladesh’s roughly $100bn dollars in trade — including clothes for H&M, Walmart and others — passes through the Chittagong port at the top of the Bay of Bengal.
Rakibul Alam Chowdhury from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said that about $110mn worth of garments were destroyed in the fire.
“It is a huge loss for the industry,” he said.
Bangladesh has prospered over recent decades to become the world’s second-biggest exporter of garments, but the infrastructure and institutional focus for industrial safety is still nascent, the International Labour Organisation said earlier this year.
In 2020, three people were killed after an oil tank exploded at a container depot in Chittagong’s Patenga area, while in July last year, 54 died when an inferno ripped through a food processing factory outside the capital Dhaka.
At least 70 died in a fire that engulfed several buildings in a centuries-old neighbourhood of Dhaka in 2020.
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