The police on Monday started collecting DNA samples to identify victims of the devastating fire at a private container depot in southeastern Bangladesh, even as authorities struggled to determine the cause of the blaze that killed at least 49 people.
A massive fire broke out at the chemical container depot near the country’s main Chittagong Seaport on Saturday night. The number of fatalities is likely to go up as some of the injured are in critical condition and at least three firefighters remain missing.
A forensic team led by Chittagong’s Criminal Investigation Department Additional Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jahangir Alam set up a booth in front of the Chittagong Medical College Hospital (CMCH) on Monday to cross-match DNA samples of unidentified victims of the fire, The Dhaka Tribune newspaper reported.
Alam said samples were being collected from parents, siblings, or any two of the children of the unidentified victims. Long queues of relatives of the victims formed in front of the booth to identify their loved ones in the early morning.
Of the 49 dead consisting mostly of workers of the private depot and firefighters, 13 have been identified so far. Over 450 people were also injured in the incident.
The tragedy raised concern over the safety standard in the country’s industrial sector. An explosives inspector in the port city said the authorities of BM Container Depot did not have proper authorisation to store chemical agents in the facility, Bdnews24.com news portal reported.
The inspector, Tofazzal Hossain, said he was not aware of any such authorisation.
“So far I know, they (BM Container Depot) don’t have it. This is the first time we (Directorate of Explosives) are hearing about it,” he said.
The firefighters from Chattogram and its surrounding districts had struggled to douse the fire as multiple explosions rocked the area and kept exacerbating the fire.
Tofazzal said hydrogen peroxide, the chemical agent that many are assuming stoked the fire, may not be behind the explosion at all.
“Hydrogen peroxide is an accelerant agent, it can help spread the fire more, but it never causes it,” he said.
Since the fire was yet to be contained, the inspection team led by Tofazzal could not get close to the area still on fire.
“We could not get to the bottom of it. But I’m certain there were other chemical agents or materials which explode as they come into contact with fire or any other materials.” Any storage facilities require authorisations and clearances from a number of authorities — no-objection certificates from the district administration and the Department of Environment and licences from the Directorate of Explosives and the Fire Services and Civil Defence, to store materials which can explode, Tofazzal said.
Such materials need to be stored in a separate location within the depot as well, he added.
“I can’t say for sure at the moment whether BM Container Depot authorities had followed all the regulations or have the proper paperwork. We’re hoping to get all the details after the investigation is over,” he said.
BM Container Depot’s Manager Nazmul Akhter Khan however claimed that the depot has all the necessary authorisations to store chemicals in the facility.
“We have all the paperwork. The chemicals were stored separately here for export,” he said.
He, however, could not give the exact number of containers that had been housing those chemical agents.
The Chattogram Port Authority’s Chairman Rear Admiral Mohammed Shahjahan said hydrogen peroxide was stored in at least 26 containers in the depot.
Apart from those, he said some plastic cans under a shed in the depot had some of those chemical agents as well.
The depot’s owner, Smart Group’s Administrative General Manager, retired major Shamsul Haider Siddique has said he will not comment on the matter which is under active investigation.
According to the data of the National Board of Revenue (NBR), Al Razi Chemical, located at Hathazari in Chattogram, exported around 9,635 tonnes of hydrogen peroxide to 12 countries in recent months using the BN Container Depot. Most of the consignments were shipped to Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar, Venezuela, and Singapore.
Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said the deadly fire has exposed a very fragile state system in Bangladesh.
“No security measures were taken there. I am terrified to think a country that has been said to be a modern one like Singapore, has no minimum security of human life,” he said.
Bangladesh has a history of industrial disasters. Past industrial tragedies have often been attributed to safety lapses.
Last year, a fire engulfed a food and drink factory in Bangladesh, killing at least 52 people.
In February 2019, a blaze ripped through a 400-year-old area cramped with apartments, shops and warehouses in the oldest part of Dhaka and killed at least 67 people.
In 2012, about 117 workers died when they were trapped behind locked exits in a garment factory in Dhaka. The country’s worst industrial disaster occurred the following year, when the Rana Plaza garment factory outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.
Another fire in Old Dhaka in a house illegally storing chemicals killed at least 123 people in 2010.