Bangladesh police launch negligence investigation after fire in crowded district kills dozens

Storage of flammable chemicals and overcrowding have continued in the neighbourhood of Old Dhaka, despite calls for change after another devastating fire more than eight years ago, officials and activists say.

Officials suggest storage of flammable materials, overcrowding were factors

People raced to help firefighters douse the fire that tore through an old part of Bangladesh's capital on Wednesday night and killed dozens. Police say they are seeking up to a dozen people wanted on suspicion of ;causing death through negligence.' (Mahmud Hossain Opu/Associated Press)

Bangladesh police said Friday they were seeking up to a dozen suspects in connection with a fire in the oldest part of the nation's capital and could charge them with negligence after at least 67 people were killed.

The case involves between 10 and 12 people wanted on suspicion of "causing death through negligence" in the Wednesday night fire in Dhaka's Chawkbazar district, said Ibrahim Khan, a deputy commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. He declined to give details.

"Upon investigation we will be able to disclose everything," he told reporters.

Relatives of a 19-year-old killed in the blaze have filed a separate case with police accusing the owners of a building where chemical products were stored and that caught fire of "death by negligence, sabotage and damage of goods," Abdul Halim, a police investigator in Chawkbazar, told The Associated Press. He said no arrests had been made.

Workers were removing charred vehicles, twisted bits of metal and other debris from Chawkbazar on Friday, while others hosed down the road to clean ashes as investigators inspected the burned buildings to determine what caused the blaze.

People look at a charred vehicle Friday in Dhaka, where workers were removing debris from the devastating fire. (Mahmud Hossain Opu/Associated Press)

The area in what is known as Old Dhaka is crammed with apartments, shops and warehouses and firefighters struggled to reach the fire because of the neighbourhood's narrow alleyways. Officials and activists have suggested the storage of flammable materials as well as overcrowding played a part in the blaze.

"Cans of deodorant and lighter refilling fuel were stored in the buildings. These are flammable chemicals that helped spread the fire quickly," Lt.-Col. S.M. Julfiqar Rahman, a director of Fire Service and Civil Defence, told reporters.

Meanwhile, authorities were collecting DNA samples from family members searching for missing relatives.

Of the 67 victims, 21 remained unidentified, according to Rumana Akter, an officer in the Dhaka police's criminal investigations unit.

Relatives have been attempting to identify the people killed in the fire. The bodies were taken to Dhaka Medical College and Hospital. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Forensic doctors and lab technicians at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital took blood and cheek swabs in a crowded room outside the hospital morgue to be compared to teeth, hair and other samples taken from the dead.

Mohammed Razu Ahmed, 19, gave a blood sample hoping it would help find his father, Jafar Ahmed, a plastic supplier who went to Chawkbazar to pick up raw materials. Several family members including Ahmed examined 30 bodies but none of them was his father.

"We have been calling on his phone since Wednesday night," Ahmed said. "They told us they will let us know."

A team of civil engineers, members of Dhaka's fire department and government officials were expected to suggest ways to prevent similar tragedies.

Landlords 'influential'

After a fire in a neighbouring district at a building storing flammable chemicals killed 123 people in 2010, authorities promised to bring the buildings into compliance with zoning regulations and close warehouses.

Dhaka-based environmental activist Abu Naser Khan said calls to address dangerous overcrowding and chemical storage after the 2010 fire fell on deaf ears.

"The landlords in Old Dhaka are influential — financially and politically," Khan said. "The people who have chemical and plastic businesses have strong associations that work as a pressure group."

When authorities attempted to evict hundreds of illegal tenants in Old Dhaka last May, business owners protested, foiling the drive, Khan said.