At least 49 killed and over 300 injured after fire and explosions hit the container depot near the port city of Chittagong.

At least 49 people have been killed and more than 300 injured after a massive fire swept through a container depot in southeastern Bangladesh, according to senior officials.

The fire broke out at a container facility on Saturday night at Sitakunda, 40km (25 miles) from the port city of Chittagong, triggering multiple explosions, officials said.

“The death toll has risen to 49,” Elias Chowdhury, Chittagong’s chief doctor, told Al Jazeera. He added that more than 300 people have been injured in the blaze and subsequent explosions.

“The number of fatalities is expected to rise as some of the injured are in critical condition,” Chowdhury earlier told the AFP news agency.

Six firefighters are among those killed, Brig General MD Main Uddin, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera.

At least 21 firefighters, who had been at the scene attempting to douse the blaze, have been injured.

They were hurt during the secondary explosions.

Photo courtesy: The Business Standard

What caused the blaze?

The explosions shook the neighbourhood and shattered windowpanes of nearby houses, local residents said.

“I was standing inside the depot. The explosion just threw me some 10 metres [11 yards] from where I was standing. My hands and legs are burned,” Tofael Ahmed, a truck driver, said.

The explosion was so loud that it shook residential buildings several kilometres from the depot, said Mohammad Ali, 60, who has a nearby grocery store.

The dock stocked the hydrogen peroxide – a chemical compound that acts as an explosive in thermal decomposition if heated – from a Chattogram exporter.

Industrial disasters are common in Bangladesh, and are often blamed on poor safety regulations.

Hospitals overwhelmed, DNA test to identify victims

Chattogram Civil Surgeon Mohammad Illius Chowdhury said the injured were undergoing treatment at the Chattogram Medical College Hospital, Chattogram Combined Military Hospital and several private clinics of the city.    

Medics have appealed for blood donations and some of the injured have been airlifted to Dhaka.

“After the incident, we have requested all the doctors to report to their workstations. We are receiving all-out cooperation,” added the civil surgeon.    

Fire service said 21 critically injured firemen were undergoing treatment at the Chattogram Combined Military Hospital.

Fifteen of the 49 victims of the horrific blast have been identified, while the remaining deceased will be identified after DNA tests, Chattogram deputy inspector general of police Anwar Hossain.

Business loss more than $110m

The estimated primary financial loss caused by the fire is more than $110 million, according to the Bangladesh Inland Container Depots Association (BICDA).

BICDA Secretary General Ruhul Amin Sikder told, “The primary damage from the fire will surpass $110 million as it has destroyed loaded export and import containers worth over $90 million and empty containers worth over $20 million.”

“We are still working to measure the losses,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rakibul Alam Chowdhury, vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said that export goods for the United States and Europe were brought to the depot for shipment in the last five days.

“In the depot, there were goods that were waiting for a shipment for the US-based chain cloth brand H&M, while 100 TEUs were supposed to be shipped for a European brand,” Rakibul Alam said.

On the basis of “Free on Board” external trade, apparel-makers are responsible to hand over the exporting goods to the agents. From then, the foreign buyers bear the shipping costs and other transport risks. 

But as the goods were damaged at the depot before shipping, an uncertainty has emerged over the payments. 

Bad sign for foreign business

BGMEA first Vice-President Syed Nazrul Islam said if industrial incidents occur frequently, foreign buyers will raise questions over compliance.  

“It will remain as a bitter experience for apparel exporters,” he said, adding, “We believe the national revenue board has given approval to the container depot after ensuring all international standards of compliance.”

BGMEA Vice-President Shahidullah Azim said the country’s image in the international market will get hurt due to the fire.

He referred to declining apparel exports following the Rana Plaza garment collapse and the Tazreen Fashion fire.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Bangladesh also expressed concern over the fire, and said the revenue board should check the facilities before issuing licences and regular monitoring is essential, since the solution lies with proper precautions to prevent such loss of life and image of this emerging export bound nation.

President Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Sunday expressed profound shock and grief at the loss of lives and injuries in the fire.