Fire guts old Dhaka district, dozens dead

At least 67 people have been killed in a blaze that tore through a densely packed area of Dhaka.
At least 67 people have been killed in a blaze that tore through a densely packed area of Dhaka.

A fire has raced through densely packed buildings in a centuries-old district in Bangladesh's capital, killing at least 67 people.

The fire in Dhaka's Chawkbazar area was mostly under control after more than 10 hours of frantic firefighting efforts.

About 50 people were injured, with some critically burned.

Fire officials initially said 81 bodies had been recovered, but later lowered the number to 67 after body bags were found to have been incorrectly counted.

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.

Grocery store owner Javed Hossain was fortunate to survive the blaze.

"I was talking to a customer, suddenly he shouted at me, 'Fire! Fire!"' Hossain said.

"I said 'Oh, Allah', in a fraction of a second the fire caught my shop."

Hossain's brother took his hand and they leaped onto the street before the shop was engulfed in flames.

The blaze started late on Wednesday night in one building and quickly spread to others.

Fire Service and Civil Defence official Mahfuz Riben said many of the victims were trapped inside the buildings.

"Our teams are working there but many of the recovered bodies are beyond recognition," he told The Associated Press.

"Our people are using body bags to send them to the hospital morgue, this is a very difficult situation."

First responders were delayed in reaching the site in part because nearby roads were closed for national holiday commemorations on Thursday.

Just after midnight as the fire burned, Bangladesh's prime minister and president laid wreaths at a monument not far away to commemorate protesters who died in a 1952 demonstration for the right to speak Bengali, the local language.

Fire officials said the road closures worsened traffic, slowing down some of the fire trucks rushing to the site.

Most buildings in Chawkbazar are used both for residential and commercial purposes despite warnings of the potential for high fatalities from fires after one killed at least 123 people in 2010.

Authorities had promised to bring the buildings under regulations and remove chemical warehouses from the residential buildings.

A government eviction drive in Chawkbazar and other areas of Old Dhaka was met with protests last May right before Eid, the beginning of Ramadan.

Md Manjur Morshed, an assistant professor of urban planning at Khulna University of Engineering and Technology in Khulna, said government regulations are routinely flouted in Chawkbazar.

"This is a historic area with a distinct culture," he said. "They are not really abiding by the government's rules."

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.

Australian Associated Press