The blaze that killed 111 workers at Tazreen Fashions Ltd in Ashulia morphed into the nation's worst garment tragedy and shed the spotlight once again on poor safety standards.
At least 55 bodies were charred beyond recognition as the fire ripped through the eight-storey factory at Nishchintapur on Saturday for about 11 hours.
Relatives of the victims searched for their lost ones amid scenes of rescuers pulling dead bodies from the debris. The shocked relatives said most of the deaths could have been avoided had the supervisors allowed the workers to escape just after the fire alarm went off at 6:45pm.
The supervisors not only prevented the workers from leaving their stations but also locked the gates on different floors, said many survivors.
The workers alleged that they had found locked two of the three staircases that go down to the factory's ground floor. Maj Muhammad Mahboob, director of Fire Service and Civil Defence (operations and maintenance), said the fire-fighters found a gate on the staircases locked and had to cut a padlock open during the rescue operation.
The workers rushed through the other staircase to escape the flames. As they were half way down the escape route, they were told by their supervisors to get back to work. The supervisors assumed that the fire was a small one and would die down soon. But it was the other way round.
The blaze spread from floor to floor, burning its way in. Clouds of smoke filled every corner of the eight-storey building. The lights went out.
Flames spread fast from the fabrics and yarn stored on the ground floor, and trapped the workers inside the building. Many died after jumping off the building in an attempt to escape the flames while some escaped climbing down the scaffolding attached to the building.
Fire-fighters took half an hour to arrive at the scene, and the 18 units of fire service toiled more than 11 hours to put out the blaze.
The factory's safety system was below standard as the building has three staircases that lead to a lone exit on the ground floor. About 1,800 workers were working in the factory when the fire broke out in the warehouse on the ground floor.
Delwar Hossain, managing director of Tuba Group that owns the factory, claimed that the factory had adequate fire safety measures, but the workers could not use those during the incident.
He said they had arranged a fire drill at the factory a few days ago.
According to Delwar, the workers died from suffocation as they failed to escape because of thick smoke in the three staircases and the ground floor.
Documents posted on Tuba Group's website included a letter purporting to be from Wal-Mart's ethical-sourcing department for the US and Canada informing Tazreen Fashions that a May 2011 audit had found it to be a "high-risk" factory. The letter said two more such findings within two years would lead to Wal-Mart suspending orders from that factory for at least a year, reported The Wall Street Journal.
The workers said bundles of fabrics and yarn stacked in the factory's corridors and passages had ignited, turning the escape routes into death traps.
Kamrun Nahar, who worked as a sewing machine operator on the fifth floor, said they tried to rush to the ground floor as the alarm went off, but found the gate on second floor's staircase locked.
The supervisors told her to return to work.
“I helplessly waited for two minutes and then ran towards another staircase. Around 50 men and women followed me and we reached the exit on the ground floor, where all the staircases meet. We felt heat and saw smoke when we came down.”
Many workers escaped through the adjacent building by breaking metal bars of windows. The owner of that building, Mahmud Ali Sikder, said a makeshift bridge was made to connect the two structures.
He claimed that more than 400 people were helped to escape through his building.
About a dozen workers tried to extinguish the blaze with water after the fire spread on the ground floor.
“We tried to bring the fire under control but the highly flammable fabric and yarn fuelled the flames, and we gave up,” said Mominur Rahman, who was working on the first floor of the factory.
“Since we were on the first floor, we sensed the danger within minutes. We tried to extinguish the fire for the next 15 minutes,” said Mominur, who received minor injuries.
“We had a fire drill only a week ago, and 15 of us received training on how to douse fire with water or extinguisher, but nothing worked in this case,” he said.
Electricity went out within minutes, and flames swept through the corridors and staircases cutting off all exit points, said Mominur.
He suspected that the fire had started much before it was detected.
The extent of the damage started to emerge as fire-fighters finally brought the flames under control at about 6:00am on Sunday. Charred bodies and debris were on every floor.
In the aftermath of the factory fire, people were in a desperate search of their loved ones. Some of them were crying, some stood still gazing at the blackened, sprawling building. Some others dashed to the playground of the school nearby, where the dead bodies were laid down.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association put the death toll at 113.
At least 55 charred bodies were kept at Dhaka Medical College morgue and samples were collected from the bodies for DNA test yesterday. The unidentified bodies will be buried today at the Jurain graveyard in the capital.