‘Doomsday’ inferno leaves Dhaka in shock

Dhaka: Chemical fireballs rained down and set rickshaws ablaze, while explosions rocked the streets and pedestrians engulfed in flames ran for their lives, witnesses said after the inferno that killed dozens in a dense Dhaka neighbourhood.
Dozens were killed in the latest fire disaster to hit the Bangladeshi capital, which gutted four crumbling apartment buildings in the old city where chemicals were illegally stored.
Charred husks of cars, rickshaws and vans littered the narrow streets along with hundreds of spray cans fired out by the explosions. Shocked firefighters told of the carnage they had witnessed.
“We found 24 bodies in one corner of a building and another nine bodies at a pharmacy where the shutters were down,” firefighter Shariful Islam said at the scene.
“They thought they would survive by bringing down the shutters.” Those who did escape counted their blessings.
Mohammad Salim was walking home from his factory on Wednesday night when a series of powerful explosions knocked him to the ground.
“Another man fell on me. His whole body was in flames. As I ran for safety, I heard one explosion after another and saw a woman and her child in flames in a rickshaw,” he said from his bed at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
About a quarter of the 45-year-old’s body suffered burns, and doctors listed him in critical condition. Nine others at the hospital were also being treated for severe burns.
Haji Mohammad Salahuddin, among those critically injured, told how he saw bolts of fire fall from the sky, setting ablaze a narrow road clogged with cycle rickshaws, vans and cars.
“The explosions were so loud it was like a war. The chemical jars were exploding in the upper floors and fireballs were falling on the streets,” he said. “I saw bodies burning all over the road.”
Haji Minto, another resident of the area, said it was like “doomsday”. “The flames were so intense that the firefighters could do nothing for the first few hours,” he said.
The inferno started in a building at Chawkbazar, a 300-year-old Dhaka neighbourhood, where chemicals for making deodorants and other household uses were illegally stored. It quickly spread to four nearby buildings where many people were trapped.
Hundreds of firefighters rushed to the scene but traffic jams in the narrow streets held them up.
It took almost 12 hours to bring the fire under control, as firefighters went through the blackened floors of the buildings, littered with spray cans, looking for bodies.
Ali Ahmed, Bangladesh national fire chief, said the inferno may have been started by a gas cylinder. The chemicals illegally stored in the buildings only helped speed up the killer blaze through nearby apartments.