Trapped, they die in fire
At least 49 workers and staffers died in a fire at a Narayanganj factory being trapped on the third floor with its lone exit locked when the blaze engulfed the building on Thursday.
Three others died after jumping off the six-storey food processing factory and the death toll stood at 52, most of whom are women and children.
Soon after the fire broke out around 5:30pm on Thursday, those on duty on the third floor were asked by a supervisor to stay there and assured that they would be safe from the blaze and smoke as it was air-conditioned.
They were also told that the firefighters would be reaching any time soon, said survivors and relatives of the victims.
When the firefighters arrived at 6:10pm, the blaze, which presumably originated on the ground floor housing flammable materials like cartons and paper rolls, had already spread to the first and second floors.
After hours of frantic efforts, firefighters reached the third floor only to find a grim picture -- 49 bodies charred beyond recognition.
At least 10 were injured while the firemen rescued 25 from the rooftop of the Hashem Foods factory, which manufactured items of known brands such as Shezan juice and Nocilla.
"All 49 bodies were recovered from the third floor of the building today [yesterday]. They could not come out as they found its only exit locked," Debashish Bardhan, deputy director (operations and maintenance) of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told The Daily Star.
"The bodies were charred beyond recognition and it will be hard to identify them," he said yesterday.
All the recovered bodies were sent to Dhaka Medical College morgue where family members and relatives of the missing workers gathered to find our if their loved ones were among the dead. Police, however, did not allow them to see the bodies as they were beyond recognition.
Additional Deputy Commissioner of Narayanganj Shamim Bapary said post-mortems will be done and DNA samples will be collected from the bodies and family members for identification.
"Upon receiving the results, the bodies will be handed over to the families," he said.
A team from the DNA lab of CID went to the morgue and were collecting samples from family members of the victims as of 8:00pm yesterday.
Director of Fire Service Lt Col Zillur Rahman said the building should have had at least five staircases but there were only two and those were narrow.
They also did not notice adequate fire extinguishing equipment at the factory, which also had no fire alarm system. "We will be able to say about the lack of fire safety more clearly after investigation," he added.
Asked why they failed to rescue those on the third floor, he said, "If they could go to the rooftop, we could have saved them. We rescued 25 people who were on the rooftop."
The director added that raw materials were stacked on all the floors, making it difficult to spray water.
It was taking a long time to completely douse the fire as there were combustible items like oil, chemicals, poly packs, foil papers, and plastic bottles and beads.
He said they brought the fire "under control" at 12:35am yesterday.
However, 18 units of firefighters were still working at the spot to fully douse the flames as of 9:45pm.
Md Abul Hashem, chairman and managing director of Sajeeb Group, which owns the factory located in the district's Rupganj upazila, shrugged off responsibility for the factory fire.
"The fire may have been a result of workers' carelessness. Maybe a worker did not put out his cigarette before throwing it," he told this newspaper.
Any of these could be the reason behind the deadly blaze, he said.
"Building an industry is one of the greatest mistakes of my life. If there is an industry, there will be workers. If there are workers, then there will be work, and if there is work, there can be fire," he added.
"Am I responsible for this? It is not like I went and set the fire. Neither did any manager of mine do so."
He claimed the factory had adequate firefighting equipment.
Hashem Foods Ltd, a concern of Sajeeb Group, produces beverages, biscuits and bakery item, jam, jelly, and sauce among other products.
Apart from marketing a number of products under the brand Sajeeb, it manufactures Shezan mango fruit drink under technical collaboration with Shezan International Ltd, Pakistan, and Nocilla under licence of Idilia Foods, Spain, according to the group.
THE ILL-FATED THIRD FLOOR
Sajeeb Group's CEO Mohammad Shahan Shah Azad said each floor of the factory had space of 34,000 square feet and all the floors were completely damaged in the fire.
Officials of the factory said around 500 workers used to work in the building. All the units on the second floor were totally closed on Thursday, and most of the workers had already left the building soon after their shift was over at around 4:00pm.
Mohammad Salahuddin, admin officer of the factory, said around 180 workers and officials were inside the factory building during the blaze.
Jahanara Begum was among those workers who were on the third floor of the factory.
"We can't breathe! We're trapped inside, get us out of here! Please help!" she could tell her brother-in-law Liton over the phone at around 6:30pm on Thursday.
Liton kept calling after that and Jahanara's phone continued to ring for around 20 minutes. Then her phone went dead.
Some staffers said when the fire broke out, the supervisor of the third floor, Mahbubur Rahman, asked the workers on the floor -- which was fully air-conditioned -- to stay back there with him and go down after the fire was extinguished.
Mahbubur is believed to be among the victims whose bodies were recovered yesterday.
Several workers alleged that the gate of the floor was locked and that's why most of the casualties were on that floor, where cream choco, ice bar, chocolate, and lollipops used to be manufactured.
Around a week ago, a fire had originated on the ground floor and was extinguished by the workers, which gave them the confidence to stay back, they added.
Manzurul Islam, a worker who was rescued, said the third floor was engulfed by thick smoke, making it difficult for them to breathe.
"There were three exhaust fans on the floor. Four of us tried to break one fan to escape through the hole but could not. I lost consciousness soon," he said, adding when he regained consciousness he found himself at DMCH.
"Locals rescued three of us by breaking the exhaust fans," he said.
Porimol Roy, senior operator of the factory, said Thursday's blaze started on the ground floor which was packed with cartons and paper rolls.
The Fire Service, however, said where the fire originated will be determined after investigation.
Many workers on the fourth and fifth floors went to the rooftop from where around 25 people were rescued while several others jumped out of the windows. Three died jumping off the roof of the building.
Witnesses said initially staffers of the building tried to douse the fire but failed.
By that time, the flames had spread to the first and second floors and gone beyond control, firefighters and staffers said.
Three separate probe committees were formed by the district administration, Fire Service, and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) to investigate the fire incident.
Narayanganj Superintendent of Police Zayedul Alam said a case will be filed in this connection and filing of the case is under process.
CLASH OUTSIDE FACTORY
Hundreds of family members and relatives of the missing workers along with locals and outsiders attacked and vandalised the factory around 10:00am yesterday.
Three loaded shotguns belonging to Ansar members guarding the factory were looted, said a Rupganj police official.
The protestors threw brick chips at members of police, Rapid Action Battalion, and Ansar who tried to stop them. As law enforcers opened fire and lobbed tear shells, a clash ensued.
Due to the clash, traffic on the Dhaka-Sylhet highway remained halted for about an hour and a half. Additional police were deployed to bring the situation under control.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina yesterday expressed deep shock and sorrow over the casualties from the factory fire. In a condolence message, she prayed for eternal peace of the departed souls and conveyed deep sympathy to the bereaved families.
State Minister for Labour and Employment Begum Munnujan Sufian announced financial assistance for the relatives of the fire victims.
While visiting the spot yesterday evening, she said the families of the deceased workers will be given Tk 2 lakh each from the Labour Welfare Trust and the injured workers will get Tk 50,000 each, reported BSS.