SURVIVORS have described how a fire tore through a multi-storey garment factory just outside Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, killing more than 120 colleagues in one of the worst such incidents in recent years.
Mohammad Shahbul Alam, 26, described flames filling two of the three stairwells of the nine-floor building – where clothes for international brands appear to have been made – shortly after the fire alarm had been raised.
Rooms full of female workers were cut off as piles of yarn and fabric filling corridors ignited. Reports also suggested fire exits at the site had locks on, which had to be broken in order for staff to escape.
"It was 6.45pm when the fire alarm was raised," Mr Alam said. "I rushed out. I heard that [grilles blocking the way to] the second and third floors were locked. When I came down, I saw fire at both the stairways that the ladies used. I still have not found any trace of my sister-in-law."
Another worker, Zakir Hossain, said management told their employees not to evacuate immediately.
"The office staff asked us to stay where we were, telling us not to panic. We did not listen to them and started moving out," he said. "A lot of people were stuck there. Some people got out climbing down the bamboo [scaffolding] tied against the building."
Witnesses said many workers leapt from upper stories in a bid to escape the flames. Twelve workers died in hospital from injuries sustained in falls, officials said, bringing the overall toll to 123 dead and more than 150 injured.
The blaze will focus attention once more on the conditions in which workers producing clothes for sale in the West work.
Fires in textiles and garments factories across south Asia have killed hundreds in recent months. More than 280 died in Karachi, Pakistan, in September.
Delwar Hossein, the managing director of the Dhaka factory, said that the factory, Tazreen Fashions, had been making clothes for the European high-street giant C&A among other clients.
"I lived on these workers' efforts," he said. "I could not do anything for my workers. I do not know what went wrong and cannot understand why the staff could not get out of the building."
There was no immediate response from C&A.
The factory, in the Ashulia industrial zone, is one of about 4000 such installations in Bangladesh, many of which operate with minimal safeguards against fire or industrial accidents. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the US and Europe.
Earlier this year, more than 300 factories near the capital were shut for almost a week as workers demanded higher wages and better working conditions.
The acting president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Siddiq Ur Rahman, said the families of the dead would receive 100,000 taka (about $1200) as compensation.
Kalpona Akter, from the Bangladesh Centre for Workers' Solidarity, said: "We initially thought the fire broke out from generator but I checked the generator room today and it was not from there."
Mr Akter said that locks on exits at the factory had been broken, indicating that the gates had been locked when the fire broke out.
Guardian News & Media