Bangladesh fire kills 8 as collapse toll hits 950

By Julhas Alam

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 10:12 a.m. MDT

Workers stand outside an 11-story building that houses the Tung Hai Sweater Ltd. factory and apartments after a fire in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Thursday, May 9, 2013. The fire broke out in the building Wednesday night, not long after the up to 300 workers of the factory went home for the day, killing at least eight people officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

Ismail Ferdous, AP

DHAKA, Bangladesh — A fire at a sweater manufacturer killed eight people — including a senior police officer, a Bangladeshi politician and a top clothing industry official — barely two weeks after the collapse of a building housing other garment factories where the death toll approached 1,000 on Thursday.

Unlike the collapse at the Rana Plaza building, which was blamed on shoddy construction and disregard for safety regulations, the Tung Hai Sweater factory appeared to have conformed to building codes. A top fire official said the deaths in Wednesday night's fire were caused by panic and bad luck.

"They are really unfortunate," said Mamun Mahmud, deputy director of the fire service.

The fire engulfed the lower floors of the 11-story factory, which had closed for the day. The smoldering acrylic products produced immense amounts of smoke and poison gas and the victims suffocated as they ran down the stairs, Mahmud said.

The building appeared on first inspection to have been properly built, though fire inspectors would conduct further checks, he said. It had two stairwells in the front and an emergency exit in the back, he said. Those inside probably panicked when they saw smoke and ran into one of the front stairwells, he said. Had they used the emergency stairwell, they would have survived, he said.

"Apparently they tried to flee the building through the stairwell in fear that the fire had engulfed the whole building," he said.

They also would have likely survived the slow-spreading fire had they stayed on the upper floors, he said.

"We found the roof open, but we did not find there anybody after the fire broke out. We recovered all of them on the stairwell on the ninth floor," he said.

The blaze comes just two weeks after the collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, home to five garment factories, killed at least 950 people and became the worst tragedy in the history of the global garment manufacturing industry. The disaster has raised alarm about the often deadly working conditions in Bangladesh's $20 billion garment industry, which provides clothing for major retailers around the globe.

The identities of the victims of Wednesday's fire showed the entanglement of the industry and top Bangladeshi officials. The dead included the factory's managing director, Mahbubur Rahman, who was also on the board of directors of the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Along with him was senior police official Z.A. Morshed and Sohel Mostafa Swapan, head of a local branch of the ruling party's youth league.

Independent TV, a local station, reported that Rahman had plans to contest next year's parliamentary elections as a candidate for the ruling party and had been meeting friends to discuss his future when the fire broke out.

It was not immediately clear what caused the fire, which began soon after the factory workers went home for the day and took three hours to bring under control. Mahmud speculated it might have originated in the factory's ironing section. Officials originally said the building also housed several floors of apartments, but later said it was just a factory.

The Facebook page of the Tung Hai Group claimed it was a sprawling enterprise with a total of 7,000 employees at its two factories and the capacity to produce well over 6 million sweaters, shirts, pants and pajamas every month. The group claimed it did business with major retailers in Europe and North America.

The country's powerful garment industry has been plagued by a series of disasters in recent months, including a November fire at the Tazreen factory that killed 112 and the building collapse.

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