The death toll in the devastating blaze in Chawkbazar rose to 67 yesterday, making it the second deadliest chemical-fuelled fire in the country after the 2010 Nimtoli incident.
The toll may rise further, officials said.
Five burn victims in critical condition are being treated at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Another 12 people are said to be missing since the fire broke out around 10:30pm on Wednesday.
The flames spread to five buildings like a wildfire in the packed area with narrow lanes, making it difficult for firefighters to respond faster and more efficiently.
At least three of the buildings had highly inflammable chemical warehouses on different floors, which is illegal.
“The area had every element needed for a fire to burn for hours. There was gas … a lot of body sprays,” said Maj Shakil Newaz, director (operations and maintenance) of Fire Service and Civil Defence.
The blaze brings to mind the memory of the deadly fire in Nimtoli, just about a kilometre from Chawkbazar. At least 124 people were killed and over 200 others injured in the fire, which originated from a stove in a building that also housed a flammable chemical warehouse.
The fire service is yet to determine the cause of the latest fire. But the industries minister said the it originated from explosion of a cooking gas cylinder. He also claimed chemicals had nothing to do with the inferno.
According to locals, however, the fire broke out after the gas cylinder of a pickup van exploded.
Autopsies found all the victims were burned alive. Of them, 41 have been identified so far while 39 bodies were handed over to their families. The rest of the bodies, burned beyond recognition, would be identified through DNA tests.
The victims are mostly pedestrians, people travelling on rickshaws and cars, residents of the buildings as well as owners and staffers of the shops and warehouses at the buildings.
Fourteen people were buried at Azimpur graveyard, while the rest were taken to their village homes for burial.
The district administration gave Tk 20,000 for burial of each victim. In addition, the government has announced a compensation of Tk 1,00,000 each.
All the injured victims will get free treatment at the DMCH, officials said.
Soon after the fire started following a loud bang, it ripped through five buildings, including a community centre. Three of the buildings had highly flammable deodorants, air fresheners, cosmetics and plastic beats, setting off a chain of explosions and a wall of flames down nearby narrow streets clogged with heavy traffic.
The area was jam-packed at the time due to road diversion for the Amar Ekushe programme at the central Shaheed Minar. As a result, vehicles, pedestrians, shop owners and their employees could not move as quickly.
The fire engulfed the area within minutes. Some tried to escape the blaze in vain, witnesses said.
More than 300 firefighters with 39 fire engines finally managed to douse the blaze around 12:20pm yesterday, after around 14 hours of relentless efforts.
Inside the buildings, they discovered dozens of scattered bodies, many of which charred beyond recognition.
Bangladesh Air Force was also called in to fight the fire. Two of its helicopters sprayed water on the affected buildings in the morning.
Survivors said fireballs rained down and explosions rocked the streets as they ran for their lives.
Many charred bodies were seen lying in alleyways, inside the buildings and on staircases yesterday.
Some of them were charred inside their shops, some just when they started for home shutting their shops, rescuers said.
"We found six bodies at a pharmacy where the shutters were down," said Abdur Rahim Babul, a neighbour.
Three of a family were burned alive in the street on their way to a party, organised just a building away from the burnt Haji Wahed Mansion. At least eight bodies were recovered from a restaurant nearby.
Kawser Ahmed, a final-year BBA student of Dhaka University, used to run a dental clinic with his friends at the Churihatta Road in Chawkbazar. While he was working in the clinic, he and five others, including two dentists, were burnt to death. His one-year-old twins -- a daughter and a son -- were taken to the DMCH by their mother.
“He was supposed to pass out from the university this year. Now everything is over," said his elder brother Ilias Ahmed.
DEVASTATION ALL AROUND
A trail of devastation was everywhere.
The roads and building tops were strewn with squeezed perfume cans which exploded like bombs. During the fire, they looked like firecrackers sent off to the sky, witnesses said.
Damaged bottles of perfumes, air fresheners and hair spray were found scattered here and there. Some of them were even found on the rooftop of neighbouring buildings.
A turbid smell of fire and damaged perfume bottles was everywhere.
Charred remains of cars, motorcycles, and pickups, steel structure of rickshaws, vans were found lying on the road. Most of their tyres were flattened. Car windows were seen moulded in heat.
The walls of the first floor of the Haji Wahed Mansion collapsed on the road. The front portion of restaurants were seen burnt.
Meanwhile, the industries ministry and the Fire Service and Civil Defence formed separate committees to probe the fire.
Police last night filed a case against unidentified traders on charges of causing the death of 67 through negligence.