Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET on 2019-02-21
Fireballs rained down on rickshaw drivers as a massive fire swept through densely packed buildings in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, killing at least 67 people and injuring more than 40 others, witnesses and officials said Thursday.
Witnesses and authorities told BenarNews that the fire started at around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday at Chawkbazar, a neighborhood in the old part of Dhaka. Firefighters, who were hindered by narrow streets and a lack of water resources, took almost 12 hours to get the blaze under control.
First responders had earlier reported a higher death toll, but Selim Reza, additional divisional commissioner of Dhaka, said a later review at a morgue showed a tally of 67 dead.
Authorities said they still were trying to determine what caused the fire that took place as many residents slept, but Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan quoted investigators as saying that a gas cylinder from a small truck exploded before fire engulfed several buildings, which stood very close together.
Chawkbazar, one of Dhaka’s oldest trading hubs, has narrow streets packed with rickshaws and is a known hub of chemical business, where ground floors serve as gas cylinder warehouses.
“If the highly flammable chemical substances were not stored in such a thickly populated area, the devastation would not be so severe,” Khan told BenarNews.
Mohammad Nasir said a loud explosion rocked the streets before flames raced through a four-story building, which had huge stockpiles of chemicals.
“There was screaming everywhere,” he told BenarNews. “I fled for my life.”
Many of the injured were taken to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) and doctors said at least 10 were in critical condition.
“I saw it with my own eyes,” Hazi Mohammed Salauddin, who was among those injured, told Al Jazeera TV. “There was massive bang with fire and shockwaves that destroyed the roadside wall. I was on a rickshaw when the explosion took place. I don’t think my rickshaw driver is alive anymore.”
Social media videos from the scene showed dozens of firefighters battling the blaze as loud explosions could be heard. Roads were littered with charred vehicles, burned plastics and cans of body deodorant.
“We found 24 bodies in one corner of a building and another nine bodies at a pharmacy where the shutters were down,” firefighter Shariful Islam told AFP while at the scene.
“They thought they would survive by bringing down the shutters.”
President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed shock over the tragedy and conveyed their condolences to those affected.
Pope Francis was also saddened to learn of the loss of life and of the injuries caused by the fire, said Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, as he explained that he had sent a telegram to Bangladesh authorities on behalf of the Holy Father.
“Pope Francis offers encouragement to the emergency personnel as they assist the victims of this tragedy, and upon all he invokes the divine blessings of consolation and strength,” Parolin was quoted by the Vatican News as saying.
“He extends his solidarity to all affected, and prays especially for the repose of the deceased and for the healing of those injured,” Parolin said.
Nine years ago, fire also gutted a chemical warehouse in Nimtoli, another highly congested area in Dhaka, killing at least 124 people. After that fire, authorities took steps to bring the area into compliance with building codes, and about 500 illegal makeshift stalls were evicted from narrow streets, according to the Associated Press.
Updated with lower official death toll.