At least 78 people died Wednesday when a fire swept through a residential building in the historic shopping district of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
The blaze quickly spread through the narrow alleyways of the centuries-old Chawkbazar district, where residents live above shops, restaurants and warehouses. Many victims were trapped inside their homes.
The fire broke out in a five-story building that featured shops on the ground floor, a plastics warehouse with flammable materials on the first floor, and three floors of residential accommodation, officials said.
Three other buildings were quickly engulfed by flames in the densely populated area, which is home to 3 million people.
Among those known to have perished are residents, restaurant customers, and a bridal party. Pedestrians walking past the buildings were killed by exploding gas canisters, officials revealed. Firefighters said most of the bodies were too charred to be identified.
At least 50 people were injured in the blaze, a dozen critically.
“Our teams are working there, but many of the recovered bodies are beyond recognition,” Mahfuz Riben, an official at the Dhaka fire department, told AP.
“Our people are using body bags to send them to the hospital morgue. This is a very difficult situation.”
More than 200 firefighters battled for 10 hours to get the fire under control. They were initially delayed getting to the scene as roads were closed for the country’s president and prime minister, who were laying wreaths at a nearby commemoration ceremony.
A lack of water added to the delay.
“The area is so congested, there is no wide space or spacious road to easily bring in water," one fire official told Reuters. “We didn’t find any water source nearby, so it took several hours to put out.”
Experts had warned about the dangers of residents living above business premises in the Chawkbazar area after a 2010 fire killed 123 people. Yet despite a government push to remove chemical warehouses from the residential buildings, regulations were largely ignored.
Tragedies of this nature are commonplace in Bangladesh due to a combination of lax regulation and a dense population. Nine people died earlier this week when a fire swept through a slum in the coastal city of Chittagong.
Cover image: Flames and smoke rise from building after a fire broke out in an old part of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka on February 21, 2019. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)