Dhaka, Bangladesh – Outside the cordon of the fire-gutted buildings, Nasrin Sultana was standing with a photograph. “Have you found my father,” asked a weeping Sultana.
She was waiting at Chawkbazaar in the older part of Dhaka where a deadly fire late on Wednesday night killed at least 70 people.
A total of 41 people have suffered critical burn injuries in the worst fire since the Rana Plaza factory tragedy of 2013 that killed more than a 1,000 people.
Sultana’s father Jainal has been missing since the time the fire broke out.
“He [Jainal] called me at around 10:30pm last night and told me that he was in Sayed uncle’s tea shop [near the Shahi Mosque]. Since the fire broke out, we found his phone dead,” Sultana told Al Jazeera.
Sultana was among many others eagerly waiting to hear about their loved ones. Nur Anha was looking for her brother Mahir Hossain. She tried to get updates from the scene in Chawkbazaar but in vain. Then she rushed towards the Dhaka Medical College (DMC) morgue.
“There is still no trace of my brother. The people in the morgue told us that they haven’t identified the bodies yet,” said Anha.
Riaz Ahmed was also among those who rushed to the DMC morgue to get information about his 25-year-old brother, Kawsar Ahmed. His fears turned out to be true, Kawsar – a student at Dhaka University – was confirmed dead.
“He wanted to be a banker. He was in his last semester in the university. Now, he is dead,” said Riaz as he broke down in tears.
Mohammad Jewel, a shopkeeper in Chawkbazaar area, told Al Jazeera that on Wednesday night, he had heard a loud sound. “I have never heard such a loud sound like that,” he said.
Jewel rushed towards the spot from where the sound originated. “By the time I reached there at around 10:45pm, I could only see fire. There were screams of people. Then I heard another round of sounds and more fire broke out in the vicinity. I fled the spot as I got scared,” he said.
Moin Uddin, a van driver who got injured in the fire, told Al Jazeera that he was riding his van near Razzaq Bhaban.
“I can only remember a large sound and a shockwave. I was thrust out from my van and fell down on the road. The left side of my body got burned,” said Moin Uddin, who was admitted in the burns unit of the DMC Hospital.
Some local residents in Chawkbazaar area told Al Jazeera that the fire originated from a burned transformer which fell down on a car.
The cylinder of that car exploded and spread fire in the area as a number of buildings in the vicinity apparently stored combustible chemicals used in preparing perfumes.
However, Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) officials said it was hard to say what caused the fire without an investigation.
Major Shakil Newaz Bhuiyan, a director of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera they couldn’t “surely” comment on how the fire broke out.
Authorities called off the rescue operation at around 12:10pm, 14 hours after one of the worst blazes in recent years.
A total of 31 victims have been identified so far. The DMC Hospital authorities have started handing over bodies to their families.
Efforts to identify the unidentified bodies continue, said Imrul Hasan, an executive magistrate at Dhaka deputy commissioner’s office.
Similarities with Neemtoli fire
Experts have been drawing similarities between Wednesday’s fire and a 2010 incident in Dhaka’s Neemtoli area in which 124 people were killed. The issue of chemical warehouses located in residential areas first came to light in the wake of the Neemtoli tragedy.
A taskforce comprising the officials of FSCD, Rapid Action Battalion and police was formed in the wake of the 2010 fire, but no warehouse was shifted out, an FSCD official told Al Jazeera.
Data collated by the Department of Explosives said that in the Chawkbazaar circle of Old Dhaka, 46 companies have the licence to import and export combustible chemicals, while 70 other units have the licence to use these chemicals to produce goods like perfumes.
But an official from the department, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that besides these 116 companies, more than 2,000 other illegal chemical warehouses were being run without a “no objection certificate” (NOC) from the Department of Explosives in that area.
The latest blaze came days after Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Sayeed Khokon announced his plans to launch a campaign against chemical storehouses and factories in Old Dhaka.
Additional reporting by Saugata Bosu in Dhaka