Bangladesh authorities: Firefighters not warned of chemicals at Chittagong depot

Kamran Reza Chowdhury and Ahammad Foyez
2022.06.06
Dhaka
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Bangladesh authorities: Firefighters not warned of chemicals at Chittagong depot Smoke rises from the spot after a massive fire broke out in an inland container depot at Sitakunda, near the port city Chittagong, Bangladesh, June 5, 2022.
REUTERS

An operator of a shipping container yard failed to notify firefighters about a stockpile of chemicals that exploded in a series of deadly blasts as they responded to a fire near Chittagong’s port over the weekend, Bangladeshi authorities said Monday.

A cargo of hydrogen peroxide destined for export was stored in some containers at the B.M. Container Depot in the Sitakunda sub-district, according to officials who lowered the death toll to 41 in the disaster that injured around 200 people. Still, many people have not been accounted for since the blasts ripped through the depot on Saturday evening.

It was the latest industrial disaster in Bangladesh, which has a poor record for workplace safety.

“We were not provided the information that there were chemicals inside the depot. If we knew about the chemicals, our rescue operation module would be different,” Mohammad Kamruzzaman, a fire department official in Sitakunda, told BenarNews.

“What seemed to us is there was a fire incident which caused the explosion. We are not sure how many explosions took place,” he said.

On Monday, army explosives experts reported finding other containers filled with chemicals at the depot.

A man walks among debris scattered at the B.M. Container Depot in the Sitakunda sub-district of Chittagong, Bangladesh, two days after an explosion and fire claimed dozens of lives, June 6, 2022. [BenarNews]
A man walks among debris scattered at the B.M. Container Depot in the Sitakunda sub-district of Chittagong, Bangladesh, two days after an explosion and fire claimed dozens of lives, June 6, 2022. [BenarNews]

“We have detected four containers of chemicals at the yard. These have been relocated to a safer place,” Lt. Col. Ariful Islam, chief of the Bangladesh Army rescue team, told reporters at the site.

“We are not sure what type of chemicals were in the containers as workers died, were injured or are missing,” he said, adding the containers were marked but did not have specific details about the chemicals inside.

Along with the four sealed containers, another 20 unsealed ones were found at the scene, according to authorities who said the explosives team went to the site to control possible contamination from the chemicals.

A spokesman for the depot told BenarNews that no information was kept from the authorities about the containers filled with chemicals.

“The containers the army experts team detected are full of hydrogen peroxide. Actually there was no chemical other than hydrogen peroxide in the yard,” said Shamsul Siddiqui, a spokesman for the depot operator.

“We have a video clip that shows one of our workers, Ahmedur Rahman, calling 999 immediately after the fire and informing police that there was chemical stock.”

GoogleEARTHbefore013121.jpg AfterFire060622.jpg

Drone footage shows smoke rising from the spot after a massive fire broke out in an inland container depot at Sitakunda, near the port city Chittagong, Bangladesh, June 5, 2022 in this still image obtained from a handout video. Al Mahmud BS/Handout via REUTERS. The Google Earth satellite photo was taken on Jan 31, 2021.

Meanwhile, officials explained why they downgraded the number of deaths.

“We earlier [said that] 49 people died, but some bodies have been counted at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital and the Chittagong General Hospital. The number of actual deaths is 41,” Mominur Rahman, the chief of Chittagong district administration, told BenarNews.

At least nine firefighters were among those killed.

“Never in the history of the fire department have so many firefighters died,” said Purnachandra Mutsuddi, who led the firefighting effort at the depot, according to Agence France-Presse.

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Men react to the news that a relative died at the B.M. Container Depot, the site of a massive fire, June 5, 2022. [Reuters]

Jahangir Alam, an additional superintendent of the police Criminal Investigation Department, said that 20 of the 41 victims had been handed over to family members. Thirty-seven DNA samples were taken from survivors in an effort to identify the other 21 who cannot be identified otherwise, he told BenarNews.

Elias Chowdhury, the chief of the Chittagong district health department, said that more than 200 people were injured in the fire, including 100 critically.

Reshmi Begum, 19, carried her 3-month-old baby as she visited hospitals in Chittagong searching for her husband, Md. Shahjahan, a B.M. truck driver who was in the depot Saturday night.

“I can’t find him anywhere – I don’t know what happened to him,” she told BenarNews.

Abu Taher Mondol said he was looking for his nephew, Mohammad Mainuddin.

“The bodies here have been turned into charcoal. There is no way to identify them. ... Now we are simply suffering. There is no lack of pain,” he told BenarNews.

“No one tells us where we should go or what we should do.”

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Members of the Sommilito Sangskritik Jote organization hold a candlelight vigil in Dhaka for victims of the fire near the Chittagong port, June 6, 2022. [Reuters]

Fire still burning

As of Monday evening, firefighters had yet to fully extinguish the fire, which broke out two days earlier. Officials said they were hampered by a lack of hydrants in the depot.

“What the fire service officials told me is that the fire flared up and has continued in a limited scale due to the burning of the huge quality of chemicals at the yard,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews.

“The fire has yet to stop as the firefighters have been working hard to douse the chemical flames,” he said, adding the fire’s intensity has diminished.

On Sunday, Chittagong district authorities announced the formation of a seven-member team while the fire service and civil defense have formed their own seven-member team to determine the cause of the blast.

“Please be patient: two government departments have been conducting investigations about the fire. We will come to know what happened there after they finish their investigation,” Khan said.

On Monday, a chemistry instructor questioned reports that hydrogen peroxide was responsible for the blast.

Hydrogen peroxide is not a flammable chemical and it should not be blamed for the explosion, said S.M. Mizanur Rahman, a chemistry professor at Dhaka University.

“Hydrogen peroxide alone can hardly cause any explosion. But if it comes in the contact of fire or flame it will aggravate the fire,” he told BenarNews, adding, “It is very hard to know whether there were any flammable chemicals in the container yard beside the hydrogen peroxide.”

Bangladesh has seen devastating incidents in the workplace over the years, including a chemical warehouse explosion in old Dhaka that killed 117 people in June 2010.

More recently, at least 52 died after a fire ripped through a juice factory southeast of Dhaka in July 2021 and at least seven died when a gas pipeline exploded in November 2019 in Chittagong.

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