At least 70 people were killed when fire tore through crumbling apartment blocks in a historic part of Dhaka, setting off a chain of explosions and a wall of flames down nearby streets, officials said Thursday.
It started in one building where chemicals for deodorants and other household uses were illegally stored and spread at lightning speed to four nearby buildings, the fire service said.
People became trapped by the flames at a nearby bridal party and a restaurant. TV images showed the gates to one building were chained up so residents were unable to escape.
Traffic jams in the clogged narrow streets held up the rescue operation.
Bangladesh fire chief Ali Ahmed said at least 70 people were killed but that the toll would likely rise.
“The number of bodies may increase. The search is still going on,” he told AFP.
Doctors said at least 10 of the scores of injured were in critical condition.
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.
Ahmed said the blaze at Chawkbazar in the old part of the city may have started with a gas cylinder before quickly spreading through a building where chemicals were stored.
The flames raced through four adjoining buildings, which were also used as chemical warehouses.
“There was a traffic jam when the fire broke out. It spread so quickly that people could not escape,” he said, describing a part of town where the streets are very narrow and residential buildings stand just centimetres apart.
“It will take time. This is not like any other fire,” he said, adding the inferno became so devastating due to the “highly combustible” chemicals stored there.
TV images showed the main gate of one of the buildings was locked, leaving its residents trapped, unable to escape the blaze as it swept through its five storeys.
Witnesses said members of a bridal party in a nearby community centre were also caught in the fire and many of them were injured.
Deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ibrahim Khan said at least two cars and 10 cycle rickshaws were burned in the fire.
“The victims included passersby, some people who were eating food at a restaurants and some members of the bridal party,” he said.
Television images showed firefighters climbing ladders to try to spray water on one of the buildings where the fire had largely been contained. One helicopter was also seen hovering over the area.
Bacchu Mia, a police inspector at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital said at least 45 people were injured, including four who were in critical condition. Hundreds of people rushed to the hospital to look for missing relatives.
Haji Abdul Kader, whose shop was destroyed in the fire, said he only survived the blaze as as he had left the shop to go to a pharmacy. A similar blaze in 2010 in an old Dhaka building, which was also used as a chemical warehouse, killed more than 120 people in one of the worst fire-related disasters in Dhaka.