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DHAKA: At least 38 people died and hundreds were injured after a fire that sparked a huge chemical explosion and was still blazing on Sunday at a shipping container depot in Bangladesh, officials said.
The toll was expected to rise with some of the more than 300 people injured are in serious condition.
Volunteers, some with only flip flops on their feet, brought bodies from the smouldering, wreckage-strewn facility, saying there were more inside.
The fire started late on Saturday at the huge depot in Sitakunda storing around 4,000 containers, many of them filled with garments destined for Western retailers, about 40 kilometres from the major southern port of Chittagong.
Then containers holding chemicals exploded, engulfing firefighters, journalists and others in an inferno, hurtling people and debris through the air, turning the night sky a blazing orange and rattling buildings kilometres away.
Mujibur Rahman, the director of B.M. Container Depot, the firm operating the facility with around 600 workers, said that the cause of the fire was still unknown.
The container depot held hydrogen peroxide, fire service chief Brigadier General Main Uddin told reporters. “We still could not control the fire because of the existence of this chemical,” he said.
Police official Mohammad Alauddin told AFP on Sunday that the death toll “has risen to 38”, as firefighters continued to douse pockets of fire with hoses and as doctors in packed hospitals treated the injured.
At least 40 firefighters and 10 police officers were hurt, Chittagong regional police chief Anwar Hossain told AFP. At least five firefighters were among those killed.
“The number of fatalities is expected to rise as some of the injured are in critical condition,” Hossain said.
“These people — including several journalists who were doing Facebook lives — are still not accounted for,” Elias Chowdhury, regional chief doctor, told AFP “There are still some bodies inside the fire-affected places. I saw eight or 10 bodies,” one volunteer told reporters.
“I was standing inside the depot. The explosion just threw me some 10 metres from where I was standing. My hands and legs are burned,” lorry driver Tofael Ahmed said.
Mohammad Ali, 60, who has a nearby grocery store, said the blast was deafening.
“A cylinder flew around half a kilometre from the fire spot to our small pond when the explosion occurred,” he told AFP.
“The explosion sent fireballs into the sky. Fireballs were falling like rain. We were so afraid we immediately left our home to find refuge […] We thought the fire would spread to our locality as it is very densely populated.”
Chowdhury, the chief doctor in Chittagong, said the injured had been rushed to different hospitals as doctors were brought back from holiday to help.
Requests for blood donations for the injured flooded social media.
The army said it had deployed 250 troops to prevent chemicals flowing into the sea with sandbags.
Mominur Rahman, chief administrator of Chittagong district, said while the fire was largely under control, there were “still several pockets of fire”.
“Firefighters are trying to control these pockets of fires. The fire has spread to at least seven acres of land inside the depot,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office (FO) said that it was deeply saddened by the loss of precious lives. “Profound condolences to the families of the victims, the government, and the brotherly people of Bangladesh. We pray for [the] quick recovery of the injured,” it said.
Fires are common in Bangladesh due to lax enforcement of safety rules.