At least 49 people died and hundreds have been injured after a fire tore through a shipping container depot in Bangladesh, sparking a huge chemical explosion that engulfed many of those who had rushed to the scene to help. The death toll is expected to rise.
More than 300 people were injured in the incident, many of whom sustained life-threatening burns, and many bodies remain unrecovered as the fire continued to blaze for a second night in Sitakunda, near the busy southern port of Chittagong.
Hundreds of firefighters, police and volunteers, some with only flip-flops on their feet, arrived at the BM Inland Container Depot, a Dutch-Bangladesh joint venture, soon after the fire broke out at about 9pm local time (1500 GMT).
As those people battled with the blaze, a number of containers holding chemicals exploded, enveloping many of the rescuers in flames and throwing debris and people into the air.
“The explosion just threw me some 10 metres from where I was standing. My hands and legs are burnt,” Tofael Ahmed told AFP news agency.
Elias Chowdhury, regional chief doctor, told media that the number of dead was 49 but would likely increase.
“There are still some bodies inside the fire-affected places. I saw eight or 10 bodies,” one volunteer told reporters.
The injured people include at least 40 firefighters and 10 police officers, said the Chittagong regional police chief, Anwar Hossain. At least nine firefighters were among those killed, and several more were in hospital with serious burns.
Journalists who had rushed to the scene to cover the fire were also believed to be among the injured.
Chowdhury said the injured people had been taken to different hospitals in the region as doctors were called back from holiday to help with the emergency. He said the number of fatalities could still grow as about 20 people remained in critical condition with burns covering 60%-90% of their bodies.
Local media put the number of injuries at about 300, and there were many requests for blood donations on social media.
Emergency crews were still working to put out the fire on Sunday morning and military clinics were helping to treat injured people.
Mominur Rahman, the chief administrator of Chittagong district, said while the fire was largely under control, there were still several pockets of fire in the depot. “Firefighters are trying to control these pocket fires,” he said.
Rahman said the depot contained millions of dollars’ worth of clothing products waiting to be exported to western retailers, for whom Bangladesh is a leading supplier.
Ruhul Amin Sikder, the spokesperson for the Bangladesh Inland Container Association, said some of the containers at the 12-hectare (30-acre) private depot contained chemicals.
The chief of the fire service told reporters that the container depot held hydrogen peroxide. While not flammable, the powerful oxidising agent can be explosive when exposed to heat, fire or sparks.
“The problem is that the firefighters [who arrived first at the scene] didn’t know there was a chemical,” Mohammed Manzurul Islam from the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society told Al Jazeera. “They thought it was a small fire. What I heard from our colleagues was that the sound of the explosion was heard from two to three miles away.”
Two separate committees have been set up to investigate the cause of the fire, one by the fire service and one by the body in charge of inspecting safety regulations in factories. The former aims to submit a report within five working days.
In 2020, three workers were killed after an oil tank exploded in another container depot in the neighbouring Patenga area.
Fires are common in Bangladesh because of the lax enforcement of safety rules. In July 2021, 54 people died when a blaze ripped through a food-processing factory outside the capital, Dhaka. In 2020, 70 people were killed when another fire engulfed several Dhaka apartment blocks.