, DHAKA, Jun 5 – The national flag flew at half-mast and people of all faiths joined in prayers on Saturday as Bangladesh mourned the deaths of nearly 120 people in the country\’s deadliest blaze.
The fire raged for three hours late Thursday, destroying at least six multi-storey apartment buildings, one of which was hosting a wedding party in one of Dhaka\’s most densely populated areas.
At least 117 people have died in the inferno but officials feared the toll would rise as dozens of critically injured patients lay fighting for their lives in Dhaka\’s overstretched hospitals.
"Some 40 patients are being treated at two main hospitals. They are in critical condition. Several of them are on life support," Dhaka\’s district administrator Muhibul Haque told AFP.
Investigators Saturday took witness accounts as they launched a probe of the blaze which firefighters said was fuelled by an illegal chemicals warehouse.
"We\’ve given seven days to find out why and how the tragedy took place," top investigator Iqbal Uddin Ahmed said.
Haque said the chemicals warehouse was illegally set up in a residential area. "We are looking for its owner. We will find the culprits and take action."
Police have also begun a new drive to identify and list all buildings in the capital that house chemical shops, as outrage over the fire and its staggering death toll grew.
"We are planning to evict the chemical shops and warehouses. They cannot be housed in residential areas," Dhaka police chief A.K.M Shahidul Haque said.
Meanwhile Saturday, panicked residents fled one of Dhaka\’s tallest buildings after large cracks appeared in the 22-storey block of apartments and offices.
Police and fire fighters evacuated hundreds of residents from the building and used loudspeakers to urge stubborn residents and passers-by to move to safety.
"I saw a big crack and the building was shaking during rains this morning," one resident told ATN Bangla news agency.
Local police chief Shahidul Haque said "people are scared and nervous" following the deadly blaze and the collapse of a four-story building this week that together claimed nearly 150 lives.
Thursday\’s fire began when an electrical transformer exploded, with the flames spreading rapidly to a warehouse next door which was illegally storing powerful glue used to manufacture shoes.
Firefighters were searching for bodies in the charred and twisted remains of six apartment buildings again on Saturday.
Fire department chief Abu Nayeem said many deaths could have been avoided if the buildings had not been fitted with heavy metal grilles.
"Residents had fortified their apartments with metal grilles to prevent thieves. These barriers made it almost impossible for residents to escape through windows or for firemen to go inside during the blaze," he said.
Special prayers were being held in mosques, temples and churches across the Muslim-majority country, and Bangladesh\’s green and red flag fluttered at half-mast as part of a day of national mourning.
Television channels suspended their normal programmes and were airing sombre religious songs and prayers.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has visited the injured and announced compensation and free treatment for the victims.
Fires due to short-circuits, substandard wiring and electrical faults are common in Bangladesh, where building regulations are rarely enforced.
Experts said only a handful of Dhaka\’s buildings were equipped properly to cope with fires.
"Dhaka is growing vertically at a rapid pace as our economy is growing fast. But many of the buildings are simply death traps," said Jahangir Alam, a civil engineering professor who led a government study on Dhaka\’s quake preparedness.
"In 2008, Dhaka had 583,000 buildings. But most of its high-rises and apartment buildings don\’t have enough fire protection measures. They are built ignoring basic construction rules," he said.