21 Feb 2019

Fire in old part of Bangladesh's capital kills dozens

8:58 pm on 21 February 2019

A devastating fire has raced through at least five buildings in an old part of Bangladesh's capital killing dozens.

Firefighters are seen at the scene of a fire in Dhaka on February 21, 2019.

Firefighters try to control fire at Chawkbazar, the old part of Dhaka city in Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

The blaze broke out on Wednesday night in a residential building that had flammable chemicals stored on one floor. It then quickly spread to nearby buildings.

Members of a bridal party are thought to be among the victims.

The centuries-old Chawkbazar district has very narrow streets and residential buildings only inches apart.

The fire broke out at 23:40 local time on Wednesday, Bangladesh police said.

It started at a chemical warehouse on the ground floor of the building and then raced through three other buildings, Director General of the Fire Service and Civil Defence Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, told BBC Bengali.

Firefighters struggled to put out the blaze, hindered by the narrow lanes and lack of water sources.

Fire-fighters try to control fire at Chawkbazar, old part of Dhaka city, Bangladesh on February 21, 2019.

Fire-fighters try to control fire at Chawkbazar, old part of Dhaka city, Bangladesh on February 21, 2019. Photo: AFP

The blaze was fuelled by pick-up vans in the area that carried gas cylinders, according to police chief Javeb Patowary.

Victims included people outside the buildings, some guests at a restaurant and members of a bridal party, deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ibrahim Khan told AFP.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her shock over the tragedy and conveyed condolences to those affected, the Dhaka Tribune reports.

Many people were trapped in the buildings, according to reports, unable to escape the flames.

One man, whose shop was destroyed in the fire, explained that he had 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 AFP.

"I turned back and saw the whole street in flames. Flames were everywhere ... I got burned and rushed to hospital."

'A danger for people'

A relative of victims who were killed in a fire mourns in Dhaka on February 21, 2019.

Photo: AFP

Chawkbazar is one of the most important areas in Old Dhaka, a historic district established about 400 years ago during the Mughal dynasty.

It is a hub of chemical businesses and local perfume factories, though authorities banned the store of chemical goods after a deadly fire in 2010.

The area is surrounded by narrow lanes, packed by rickshaws, small cars and people. Even passenger buses cannot ply onto these streets.

There are hundreds of electrical, telephone and internet cables hanging on to the narrow lanes posing a danger for the local people in Chawkbazar.

But the most serious threat come from the fact that residential buildings are used for commercial purposes, with ground floors serving as chemical and gas cylinder warehouses.

Not a first

Flames and smoke rise from building after a fire broke out in an old part of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on February 21, 2019.

Photo: AFP

It is not the first time a deadly fire has devastated parts of Dhaka. In June 2010, a blaze in the Nimtali district killed 124 people, a fire that was also made worse by the presence of an illegal chemicals warehouse.

After that incident, a committee suggested the removal of all chemical warehouses from residential areas, but critics say no significant steps have been taken in the years since.

Just one week ago, authorities announced a campaign to identify illegal chemical business in old Dhaka. Similar campaigns have been conducted in the past but none of them were particularly successful.

Bangladesh also has a persistent problem with building safety regulations not being followed.

In 2013, more than 1100 workers were killed in the Rana Plaza factory collapse.