A massive fire swept through an inland container depot near a port city in southeastern Bangladesh, killing at least 49 people and injuring hundreds more, officials said Sunday.
Firefighters were struggling to get the blaze under control 17 hours after the fire began.
The fire at the BM Inland Container Depot — a Dutch-Bangladesh joint venture — broke out around midnight Saturday following explosions in a container full of chemicals. The depot is near Chittagong, southeast of the capital, Dhaka.
“The death toll so far has risen to 49,” Elias Chowdhury, Chittagong’s chief doctor, told VOA. He added that more than 300 people have been injured in the blaze and subsequent explosions.
Chowdhury also expressed concern that the death toll might increase as some of the injured are in critical condition.
“At least 20 more people are in critical condition with burns covering 60-90% of their bodies,” he said.
Eight firefighters are among those killed, Brigadier General Dr. Main Uddin, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defense, told VOA, while at least 21 firefighters, who had been at the scene attempting to douse the blaze, have been injured and treated for burn injuries.
FSCD Director Mohammad Rezaul Karim told VOA this is the highest number of firefighter deaths in a single incident in Bangladesh’s history.
“Earlier, the highest number of members we had lost from our FSCD family in a single fire incident was three. It happened at Kulaura in 2008. This is a tragic day for us,” Karim said.
Karim who was made the head of a seven-member team that is investigating fire and the extent of damages, said the cause of the blaze has not been determined yet but that an initial fire triggered multiple explosions, possibly because of the chemicals stored in the depot.
“We have learned that some of the containers in the depot had chemicals including hydrogen peroxide. But when the fire first broke out, we were told that the depot only had ready-made garments products,” he said.
“Had our firefighters known that there were chemicals, they could have taken more precautions,” he added.
The BM depot, located about 40 kilometers from the country's main Chittagong seaport, handles goods for export and import, and is a part of network of 19 inland container depots.
Local residents said on late Saturday night, they heard a massive explosion that jolted their houses and shattered the windows of their buildings. The effect of explosion was felt as far as four kilometers away.
Bangladesh’s leading Bengali language daily, Prothom Alo, reported quoting resident Johra Begum from nearby Mollapara that part of her house was blasted away because of the explosion.
Van driver Mohammad Sumon, 30, meanwhile said he remembered a massive explosion. Speaking with VOA from a hospital bed of Chittagong Medical College, Sumon said he was waiting for some goods to be unloaded in the depot at that time.
“Suddenly, I heard that sound, saw a blast and before I could understand anything, I was thrown into air. When I stood up, I felt blood in my mouth. That was the last thing I remember. Later I discover myself in the hospital bed,” he said.
Mubinul Haq, 24, was among those whose charred body has been identified. Haq’s father Farid Uddin told VOA that his son took a job as a container operator in BM Inland Container depot late last year after completing his college graduation.
“He was full of hope. I never knew that within a few months, I will receive the dead body of my son,” Uddin said.
History of industrial disasters
Bangladesh has a history of industrial disasters and monitoring groups have blamed corruption and lax enforcement for deadly incidents over the years.
The estimated primary financial loss caused by the depot fire may stretch over $110 million, according to Bangladesh Inland Container Depots Association.
Journalist Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury reported in April in The Business Standard newspaper that Chittagong Port was at risk of accidents “like that of Beirut” as the Chittagong Customs House authorities had not removed 259 containers of hazardous chemicals stuck in the port.
Chowdhury told VOA that as containers are stored in inland container depots before being sent to port for dispatch, BM Inland Container Depot had those consignments of chemicals.
“I have been following these storages of chemicals in port and depot for quite some times and I have seen how recklessly these are being stored. An accident of this magnitude was bound to happen,” he said.
Bangladesh’s state minister for shipping, Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, also admitted in a media briefing in Dhaka that “there here has been negligence from those who run the BM Container Depot” and formed a three-member investigation committee to probe the matter.
Omar Faruque from Chittagong contributed to this report.