A devastating fire has raced through densely packed buildings in a centuries-old shopping district in Bangladesh's capital, killing at least 81 people.
The fire in Dhaka's Chawkbazar area was mostly under control after more than 10 hours of frantic firefighting efforts. Some of the about 50 people injured were critically burned.
The district dating to the Mughal era 400 years ago is crammed with buildings separated by narrow alleys, with residences commonly above shops, restaurants or warehouses on the ground floors.
"I was talking to a customer, suddenly he shouted at me: 'Fire! Fire!"' said Javed Hossain, a survivor who came to assess the damage to his grocery store. "I said 'Oh, Allah,' in a fraction of a second the fire caught my shop."
Outside the gutted store, the road was strewn with charred vehicles, pieces of still-burning metal and plastics and hundreds of cans of body deodorant.
The blaze started late Wednesday night in one building but quickly spread to others, fire department Director General Brigadier General Ali Ahmed said.
Many of the victims were trapped inside the buildings, said Mahfuz Riben, a control room official of the Fire Service and Civil Defence in Dhaka.
"Our teams are working there but many of the recovered bodies are beyond recognition. Our people are using body bags to send them to the hospital morgue, this is a very difficult situation," he told The Associated Press.
Another control room official, Russel Shikder, said 81 bodies had been recovered.
The fire services director, Maj. AKM Shakil Newaz, said many were taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
First responders were delayed reaching the site in part because nearby roads were closed for national holiday commemorations on Thursday.
The death toll from the latest fire could still rise as the condition of some of the injured people was critical, said Samanta Lal Sen, head of a burn unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
Sen said at least nine of the critically injured people were being treated in his unit.
Witnesses told local TV stations that many gas cylinders stored in the buildings continued to explode one after another. They said the fire also set off explosions in fuel tanks of some of the vehicles that got stuck in traffic in front of the destroyed buildings.
Some reports suggested many of the dead were pedestrians, shoppers or diners who died quickly as several gas cylinders exploded, and the fire engulfed the nearby buildings very quickly.
Officials said the firefighters struggled to get close to the scene because of heavy traffic and narrow alleys that were busy when the fire started.
Australian Associated Press