Dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured when a huge fire triggered explosions at a container depot in Bangladesh over the weekend, authorities said. The death toll reached 49 but was expected to rise, with many of the injured in critical condition.
The fire is under control, officials said Monday, but not extinguished completely. “Some containers are still burning. We are working with the army and navy to douse the fire,” said Atikuzzaman, an assistant director of fire service who goes by one name.
The depot company, which is jointly owned by business executives from the Netherlands and Bangladesh, did not respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
Ruhul Amin Sikder, a spokesman for the Bangladesh Inland Container Depots Association, said the magnitude of the blast was no less than what was seen in Beirut in 2020, when about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port there.
The sound of the explosion was so loud that it reverberated half a mile away. Mohammad Salahuddin, a resident of a nearby village, said that glass windows of homes and mosques shattered with multiple explosions. Everything was “trembling,” he said. “We felt like there was an earthquake.”
A resident of another nearby village, Mohammad Yakub, said there was debris all around, resembling a “war-torn” place.
Scenes at the hospital were “terrible,” according to eyewitnesses. Most of the injured were rushed to hospitals in Chittagong.
Zahidul Islam, a student at Chittagong University, was one of the dozens of volunteers who rushed to the hospital to donate blood to the injured. He said many of the injured were screaming in pain, and some had lost limbs.
“Ambulances were coming in every five minutes. The emergency unit was full. There was no bed available,” Islam said. “Doctors treated the patients wherever it was possible.”
Bangladesh has a patchy industrial safety record, and fires are not uncommon. A flurry of tragedies a decade ago shined a spotlight on the country’s ready-made garment industry and the lax enforcement of safety rules. Exports, especially from the garment industry, form the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy and employ millions of women.
Although steps have been taken to improve the situation for the many thousands of factory workers, there were still more than 21,000 fire-related incidents in 2020, according to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense.
At least 52 workers were killed last year in a fire at a food and beverage factory, which the International Labor Organization said highlighted the “urgent need” for authorities and building owners to ensure that workplaces are built and operated in compliance with national fire safety codes.
The worst workplace accident in the country occurred in 2013, when a building housing five factories collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500.
An “effective industrial and enterprise safety framework” is urgently needed in Bangladesh to prevent incidents like the depot fire, the International Labor Organization said in a statement Monday.
It is important to monitor industries and address accidental risks to improve working conditions in the country, the statement said.
Rescue workers including firefighters were among those killed in the blaze, which broke out late Saturday and burned into a second night, according to fire department officials. Nine firefighters died and 15 were injured in their attempts to control the blaze, officials said.
There were about 3,000 containers at the depot at the time of the fire, customs officials said. Of these, 33 containers contained hydrogen peroxide. The fire triggered a huge explosion and rapidly spread, with chemical-filled containers igniting one after another.
Images from the scene showed overturned and burned-out containers and debris scattered over the ground as firefighters worked through Sunday to contain the blaze. Drone footage showed flames still smoldering across the container depot and thick smoke rising into the air.
Majumder reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Masih reported from New Delhi.