A huge fire has killed at least 81 people in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, as flames spread through a historic, closely packed district of the city and fire crews struggled to bring it under control.
The blaze started in a single building in the Chawkbazar neighbourhood but very quickly spread to others as gas cylinders used for cooking exploded one after another.
Fire officials said many of the dead found themselves trapped in their homes by the rapid progress of the fire, while some pedestrians were also killed when the fire spread to cars trapped in the area’s narrow streets.
The death toll could yet rise further, with at least 50 more injured victims and of those at least nine critically burned.
As of Thursday afternoon, the blaze was mostly under control following more than 10 hours of frantic work from firefighters. Engines had struggled to reach the area through traffic that was busy at the time, hampering their efforts.
Mahfuz Riben, a control room official of the Fire Service and Civil Defence in Dhaka, said: “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.”
One man whose shop was destroyed in the fire explained how quickly it spread as he narrowly escaped the blaze when he left to go to a pharmacy.
“When I was at the pharmacy I heard a big bang,” Haji Abdul Kader told the AFP news agency.
“I turned back and saw the whole street in flames. Flames were everywhere... I got burned and rushed to hospital.”
The Chawkbazar area is crammed with buildings separated by narrow alleys. The neighbourhood is a mix of residential and commercial, with buildings that commonly have shops, restaurants or warehouses on the ground floors.
Many buildings 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 among the residential buildings.
The district dates back to the Mughal era 400 years ago, and is famous for selling traditional goods each year for people to celebrate iftar, when the daily fast is broken during Ramadan.
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 urban planning professor at Khulna University, said government regulations are routinely flouted in the district. “This is a historic area with a distinct culture,” he said. “They are not really abiding by the government’s rules.”
Additional reporting by AP
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