Following an explosion at a private container depot near Bangladesh’s port of Chittagong – the largest in the country – local authorities have reported at least 49 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.
With some 300 people hospitalised in a critical state, the death toll from the B M Container Depot in Sitakunda is expected to rise.
Some containers were still smoldering Monday, after more than 36 hours, which kept relief teams from further checking the area for victims. “Some 30-40 containers are still smoldering,” said fire department inspector Harunur Rashid. “Fire is under control. But chemicals are main problems.”
The case has been likened to the 2020 blast in the port of Beirut when 214 people died. An act of sabotage has not been ruled out. Police have yet to lay charges over the fire. “Our investigation is going on. We will look into everything,” said local police chief Abul Kalam Azad.
A fire reportedly broke out Saturday night in the Sitakunda warehouse, which stores about 4,000 containers, many of them filled with clothing bound for Western retailers, but also with highly flammable chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide. At the time of the fire, there were about 250 workers at the warehouse.
Chittagong Fire Chief Anisur Rahman explained the fire started at around 9.20 pm local time Saturday and spread quickly, as some containers started exploding. The official also said 16 rescue teams had been deployed. Hundreds of firefighters, police and volunteers arrived at the site, about 40 kilometers from the main port of Chittagong.
Witnesses say the first explosion was followed by several others as the fire continued to spread. The presence of chemicals in the containers made things worse for firefighters, it was also reported. Military staff used sandbags to prevent the toxic substances from ending up in the Indian Ocean.
The injured were rushed to several hospitals in the cities of Sitakund and Chittagong, while several people are still missing, including some reporters covering the tragic event.
Authorities accused a container depot operator Monday of not telling firefighters about a chemical stockpile before it exploded, killing at least 49 people, 9 of whom belonged to the fire service, the worst toll ever for the department in the industrial-accident-prone country.
“The depot authority did not inform us that there were deadly chemicals there. Nine of our officers were killed. Two fighters are still missing. Several people are also missing,” fire department official Mohammad Kamruzzaman told AFP.
Purnachandra Mutsuddi, who led the fire-fighting effort at the 26-acre facility on Saturday night, said it “didn’t have any fire safety plan” and lacked firefighting equipment.
Ruhul Amin Sikder, secretary general, Bangladesh Inland Container Depot Association, told The Loadstar that between 1,000 and 1,300 full containers had burnt or been destroyed in the incident. Estimating the loss from the fire amounts to US$100m.
After the Beirut blast in August 2020, Bangladesh authorities and Chittagong Port Authority had been urging port users to be cautious when handling dangerous goods. The port authority destroyed a large number of DG containers which had been neglected at the port.
The blast was so powerful that the sound could be heard 10 kilometres from the depot. Most of the homes within several kilometres of the area lost doors and windows.
The BM Container Depot in Sitakunda, an industrial town 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Chittagong Port, is a joint venture between Bangladeshi and Dutch businessmen with around 600 employees, and began operations in 2012.
Bangladesh is one of the most important clothing suppliers to the West and prospered over the last decade to become the world’s second-largest clothing exporter. Around 90 percent of Bangladesh’s roughly US$100 billion in trade, including clothes for brands such as H&M and Walmart, passes through the Chittagong port at the top of the Bay of Bengal. About US$110 million worth of garments were destroyed in the fire.