The fire broke out around 9:30 p.m. Saturday (11:30 a.m. EDT) at a private warehouse housing some 4,000 containers in Sitakunda, about 40 kilometers from the southeastern major port of Chittagong.
Hundreds of firefighters were immediately dispatched to the site to extinguish the disaster which spread to several containers full of chemicals, causing a gigantic explosion an hour later, the fire services said.
On Monday afternoon, the authorities revised the death toll from the disaster downwards to at least 41, against the 49 initially announced.
At least 14 people, some with 50-60% burns, out of more than 300 injured, had been evacuated on board military aircraft in Dhaka, the capital, they said. Dozens of people including two firefighters are still missing.
Many relatives of the missing were gathered at the Chittagong Medical College Hospital on Monday, where police and medics collected DNA samples from them in an attempt to identify the charred victims.
“I lost my child”
After hours of waiting, holding back tears, Munni Akhter, 25, sister of a young truck driver who disappeared at the site of the explosion, Mohammad Akhter, underwent a blood test.
“My brother commented (the fire) live on Facebook. Then there was the explosion and everything went black. We haven’t found him since,” she told AFP.
60-year-old Abdul Hannan refuses to believe in the death of his worker son. “My son called his wife to tell her about the fire. She heard the explosion on the phone. Since then, we have not managed to establish contact, “he said, collapsed: “I lost my child, oh my God! “.
Interior Minister Asaduzzaman Khan visited the scene where he promised justice. “Whoever committed this crime will be punished according to law,” he told reporters.
At least nine firefighters died in the explosion. “Never in the history of the fire department have so many firefighters been killed,” Purnachandra Mutsuddi, deputy director of the Chittagong fire station who was leading operations on Saturday, told AFP. is more painful than losing brothers”.
The 10.5-hectare site “had no fire safety plan”, he added, regretting that the depot authorities had “not informed them of the presence of the chemicals”. including hydrogen peroxide.
“If they had done so, the number of victims would have been much lower,” he said.
Fatal chemical reaction
Because “there are rules for storing hydrogen peroxide,” he said, “if we had known, we would never have used water. We would never have entered the depot with our vehicle”.
Unaware of the presence of hydrogen peroxide on the site, his teams hastened to fight the flames with water which undoubtedly caused a fatal chemical reaction, he explained, “a container flew to more 150 meters”.
“The explosion sent fireballs into the sky. Balls of fire fall like rain. We were so scared that we immediately fled,” said Mohammad Ali, 60, who runs a nearby grocery store.
The search for other victims was hampered on Monday by the fire which was not yet completely extinguished. Columns of smoke rose above dozens of containers. “About 30 to 40 containers are still burning,” fire department inspector Harunur Rashid said.
Millions of dollars in smoke
Around 90% of Bangladesh’s approximately $100 billion in annual trade passes through Chittagong.
Mominur Rahman, the district’s chief administrator, said the depot also contained clothes worth millions of dollars that were to be exported to Western countries.
According to Rakibul Alam Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), around $110 million worth of garments were destroyed in the fire, “a huge loss for the industry”.
In February 2019, at least 70 people were killed and 55 others injured in a huge fire that ravaged apartment buildings in Dhaka where chemicals were illegally stored.