NEW DELHI – The streets were full on Wednesday night when the first explosion tore up the air.
A compressed natural gas car was passing through a bazaar in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital, when the bottle stored at the back of the tank exploded, witnesses said.
The explosion returned the car. He then set fire to several other bottles used in a restaurant overlooking the street. Then a plastic store located on the ground floor of a neighboring building caught fire. Then a small shop that illegally stored chemicals caught fire.
A wall of fire crossed the street, engulfing bicycles, rickshaws, cars, people, everything in its path. Hell has claimed the lives of at least 70 people in one of Bangladesh's most historic neighborhoods, a country where hundreds of people have died as a result of fires ravaged by overcrowded and unsafe structures and repression. promised against violations of buildings failed.
"So many people were trying to escape," said Mohammad Rakib, a restaurant manager, who saw a rickshaw driver trying to get past the flames and then get burned alive.
"I was so terrified," he said. "I ran out of the restaurant and left all the money."
Bangladesh, one of Asia's poorest countries, is densely populated – about the same size as Iowa, but has 170 million people and more than 50 percent of its population. These conditions, however, tell only part of the story.
"It's not poverty, it's greed," he said. Nizamuddin Ahmed, architect in Dhaka. "The people who store these chemicals in residential buildings are rich: they have cars, beautiful houses, children who study abroad."
Government officials must "go door-to-door and ask these companies to go out and get lost," he said.
"But," he added, "they do not have it."
By the time firefighters extinguished the flames on Thursday morning, the neighborhood, Chawkbazar, looked like a war zone.
Cars in paunch, all the burnt paint, were seated, their doors half open. Blackened shards of metal rose from the ground. Firefighters and volunteers took the bodies in clean, white bags.
In neighboring hospitals, the families crowded the corridors, stretching their heads to see handwritten lists of living and dead people stuck to the walls.
"Why did this nightmare happen to me and my children?" Cried a young mother, Mukta, who was almost certain that her husband had died. "What am I going to do now?"
Unfortunately, none of this is new. In Bangladesh, fire and security related disasters follow one another.
In 2010, more than 120 people died in a fire in Dhaka It started when an electrical transformer exploded and ignited chemicals stored illegally in stores located on the ground floor of a residential building – a situation surprisingly similar to that of Wednesday night.
Nine years ago, as in the most recent, fire engines trying to reach the region were slowed down by impenetrable traffic.
After the 2010 fire, government officials promised to take drastic action against building violations. Dhaka has clear zoning rules: for example, it is illegal to store hazardous materials, such as chemical compounds used to make plastics, in a residential building.
But these rules are often ignored because of a lax application or, sometimes, corruption. According to analysts, wealthy business owners systematically pay officials or have simply lied about the exact location of their businesses.
In 2012, a fire is declared in a garment factory on the outskirts of Dhaka. Gigantic piles of wire and cloth fed the flames, which burned for more than 17 hours before the firefighters extinguished them.
It was later discovered that the emergency exits of the factory had been very close, trapping dozens of people. In the end, more than 115 people, mostly poor workers, died.
Less than a year after that, an even more deadly disaster has occurred in the clothing industry. An eight-story building in a suburb of Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.
Fire officials said Thursday that they were investigating what exactly happened during the last fire.
The US Department of Energy states that vehicles running on natural gas are generally as safe as those using gasoline. While privately owned natural gas passenger vehicles are relatively rare in the United States, the Asia-Pacific region is the most important market for these vehicles.
A doctor at a government hospital said that dozens of people had been horribly burned by fire and that some had damaged lungs from inhaling toxic gases, possibly burning chemicals.
The fire is declared at a busy intersection of Chawkbazar, located in a part of the city, often called Old Dhaka. It is filled with winding, winding streets, so narrow that buses and big trucks can not use them, another problem Wednesday night as firefighters struggled to get in.
"The road was very crowded at the time," said Rakib, the restaurant's director. "Terrified people on the street were trying to escape anywhere to save their lives."
Mr. Ahmed, the architect, noted that several years ago, the authorities of Dhaka had managed to move tanneries from the center of Dhaka to the outside of the city. He said it was what needed to be done now for companies storing flammable chemicals.
"We have been successful in raising public awareness of other major public issues, such as family planning," he said. "We can do it."