Factory blast survivors say exit was locked

The fire alarm was waved off by managers.

An exit door was locked. The fire extinguishers were not working and apparently “meant just to impress” inspectors and customers.

That is the picture survivors paint of the garment-factory fire that killed 112 people over the weekend.

For Bangladesh, where such factories commonly ignore safety as they rush to produce for retailers around the world, the tragedy was unusual only in scope: More than 200 people have died in garment-factory fires in the country since 2006.

About 15,000 workers protested nearby yesterday, demanding justice for the victims and improved safety. Some 200 factories were closed for the day after the protest erupted in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka.

Protesters blocked a major highway, and some threw stones at factories and smashed vehicles, but there were no arrests.

Major Mohammad Mahbub, fire department operations director, said investigators suspect that a short circuit caused the fire at the factory.

But the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association urged investigators not to rule out sabotage. “Local and international conspirators are trying to destroy our garment industry,” said Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of the association.

Mahbub said it was not the fire itself but the lack of safety measures in the eight-story building that made the blaze so deadly. “Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower.”

He said firefighters recovered at least 100 bodies from the factory, and 12 more people died at hospitals after jumping from the building.

Authorities were unable to identify many victims because they were burned beyond recognition. They were buried yesterday in a grave outside Dhaka. The government announced that today will be a day of national mourning, with the national flag flying at half-mast in honour of the dead.

Local media reported that up to 124 people were killed, and that about 100 people injured in the fire were being treated in about a dozen hospitals. Many were hurt as they jumped to escape the flames.

Mohammad Ripu said that he tried to run out of the building when the fire alarm rang but was stopped.

“Managers told us, ‘Nothing happened. The fire alarm had just gone out of order. Go back to work. But we quickly understood that there was a fire. As we again ran for the exit point we found it locked from outside, and it was too late.”

Ripu said he jumped from a second-floor window and suffered minor injuries.

Another worker, Yeamin, said fire extinguishers didn’t work. “So these were meant just to impress the buyers or authority.”

TV footage showed a team of investigators finding some unused fire extinguishers inside the factory.

The fire was Bangladesh’s deadliest in recent memory, but there have been several major factory fires in recent years, including one that killed 63 people in 2006 in southern Chittagong.

Labour leaders hope outrage over the latest disaster will prompt change.

The factory in Saturday’s blaze is owned by Tazreen Fashions, a subsidiary of the Tuba Group. The group is a major exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and IKEA.

The Tazreen factory employed about 1,700 people, who made polo shirts, fleece jackets and tee-shirts.

Bangladesh has around 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures. The country annually earns about €15bn from exports of garment products, mainly to the US and Europe.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association offered 100,000 takas (€1,000) to each of the families of the dead.

Another fire broke out yesterday in a building housing four garment factories, but there were no casualties.

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