DHAKA – Mohammad Salahuddin was on his way home in a cycle-rickshaw, accompanied by a relative, and was passing through Churihatta street, when he heard deafening explosions, followed by a massive ball of fire that escaped from a fast-moving inferno that swept through the crowded neighborhood in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka.
He was among the nine people, who were admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital in a critical condition after a massive fire broke out at Haji Wahed Mansion in Old Dhaka at 10:45 pm on Wednesday.
At least 70 people were charred alive and more than 50 were injured in the blaze that engulfed Old Dhaka’s Chawkbazar district in Bangladesh, a country known for its poor record of fire safety.
“Chemical jars were exploding, and a fireball hit the road. I saw the bodies burning all over. I felt I was in a war zone,” Salahuddin told EFE at a Dhaka hospital.
He recalled the horrific scene on the street, some distance away from the centuries-old congested neighborhood of Old Dhaka.
Notorious for its narrow lanes winding through tightly-packed buildings with hardly any firebreak between them, the historic neighborhood was established about 400 years ago during the Mughal era.
“I saw at least two people falling on the street. Our rickshaw-puller also fell down. I don’t know what happened to him. I ran to my home, from where people brought me to this hospital,” he recalled.
Salahuddin, 35, had received burnt injuries, including on his face but his relative escaped unhurt.
Many of the victims were bystanders like Salahuddin, as they could not escape the fast approaching flames owing to the narrow lanes of the neighborhood in the old Dhaka city, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with over 23,000 people living per square kilometer.
Mohammad Selim, a mirror factory worker, said he was walking back home when he heard explosions and was slapped by fireballs on his back.
“As I ran, another man fell on my body, his body was in flames. I fell down on the road. The fire engulfed a woman and a girl and their rickshaw puller. They probably died on the spot,” said Selim.
The authorities were investigating the cause of the fire but residents said it was inevitable because the building, where the fire started, stored inflammable chemicals on at least two of its floors.
Nurul Islam, who lives in the neighborhood, said the building had a plastic granule shop on the ground floor, and a perfume warehouse on the first.
A part of the second floor and the other floors were residential apartments.
“We knew about the chemical factories here. But we could not protest because of the (backing of) powerful people,” said Mohammad Saifuddin another resident.
The lanes in the area are so narrow that only a cycle-rickshaw, a non-motor three-wheeler, can pass through.
Electrical, telephone and internet cables hung loose above, posing another kind of danger.
The residential buildings are often used for commercial purposes, with ground floors being rented out to shops.
The area is a hub of chemical businesses and local perfume factories.
Authorities had banned the storage of chemical goods after a deadly fire in nearby Nimtoli area that had killed at least 124 people in 2010.
On Thursday, after the fire was extinguished, perfume cans littered the streets in Churihatta, indicating that illegal chemical business was flourishing in the area despite the ban.
“We all are responsible for the deaths. A decade ago when a tragedy occurred, we did not do much to force the authorities to remove the chemical factories,” said Iqbal Habib, Joint secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bangladesh Environment Movement).
“If you live with fire, it will catch up with you,” he added.
However, Bangladeshi authorities have promised tough action after Thursday’s incident.
“Old Dhaka is a narrow, dark area. Everything is not always visible there. We will put an all-out effort to enforce the ban,” said minister Obaidul Quader, also the general secretary of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League.
His words, however, were of little consolation to Nasrin Akter, who was looking still searching for her father among the injured.
“My father Joynal Abedin came around 10 pm for tea. After the incident, there is no trace of him. We went to Dhaka Medical and a few other hospitals but he is nowhere,” said Nasrin.
Bangladesh Red Crescent Society field officer Mahbbul Haque told EFE that at least 25 people, including two women and two children, were reported missing.