SITAKUNDA (AFP) – At least 49 people died and hundreds were injured after a fire sparked a huge chemical explosion at a shipping container depot in Bangladesh, officials said on Sunday.
The toll was expected to rise, with some of the more than 300 people injured in serious condition, officials said, while volunteers reported that there were more bodies inside the shouldering, wreckage-strewn facility.
The fire started late on Saturday at the depot in Sitakunda, which stores around 4,000 containers, many filled with garments destined for Western retailers. The facility is about 40 kilometers from the major southern port of Chittagong.
The blaze caused containers holding chemicals to explode, engulfing firefighters, volunteers and journalists in an inferno, hurtling people and debris through the air, and turning the night sky a blazing orange.
Buildings located kilometers away rattled with the force of the blast.
Elias Chowdhury, regional chief doctor, told AFP that the number of dead was 49 but would likely increase.
“The death toll will rise as the rescue work has not been completed yet,” Chowdhury said.
“These people -- including several journalists who were doing Facebook lives -- are still not accounted for.”
Firefighters continued to douse pockets of fire on Sunday afternoon, with television footage showing smoke still billowing from some containers, more than 19 hours after the fire began.
Reazul Karim, operations director of the fire department, said that at least seven firefighters died and at least four others were missing.
“Never in our fire department history have we lost so many firefighters in a single incident,” Bharat Chandra, a former senior firefighter, told AFP.
“There are still some bodies inside the fire-affected places. I saw eight or 10 bodies,” one volunteer told reporters.
Mominur Rahman, chief administrator of Chittagong district, said the depot contained millions of dollars of garment products waiting to be exported to Western retailers, for whom Bangladesh is a key supplier.
Ruhul Amin Sikder, spokesman for the Bangladesh Inland Container Association (BICA), said some of the containers at the 30-acre private depot contained chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide.
The director of the BM container depot, Mujibur Rahman, said the fire’s cause was still unknown. He added the facility employs about 600 people.
In 2020, three workers were killed after an oil tank exploded in another container depot in the neighboring Patenga area.
Fires are common in Bangladesh due to lax enforcement of safety rules. In July 2021, 54 people died when a blaze ripped through a food-processing factory outside the capital Dhaka.