Fire guts an­cient part of Bangladesh’s cap­i­tal, killing 70

Sun.Star Pampanga - - WORLD! -

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A dev­as­tat­ing fire raced through densely packed build­ings in a cen­turies-old shop­ping dis­trict in Bangladesh’s cap­i­tal, killing at least 70 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, the end of 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.

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.

First re­spon­ders were de­layed reach­ing the site in part be­cause nearby roads were closed for 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 (1.3 kilo­me­ters) away to com­mem­o­rate pro­test­ers who died in a 1952 demon­stra­tion for the right to speak Ben­gali, the lo­cal lan­guage.

Fire of­fi­cials said the road clo­sures wors­ened traf­fic, slow­ing down some of the fire trucks rush­ing 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 had killed at least 123 peo­ple in 2010. Au­thor­i­ties had promised to bring the build­ings un­der reg­u­la­tions and re­move chem­i­cal ware­houses from the res­i­den­tial build­ings.

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 (278 kilo­me­ters) 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.

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