Dhaka, Bangladesh – The last phone call Shakil Tarafder made was to his mother Jasmine Begum.
“Pray for me,” he said hurriedly before joining his firefighter colleagues rushing to douse a devastating fire that broke out late on Saturday night at a container depot in Sitakunda near Bangladesh’s largest port city of Chittagong.
Little did Begum know that she would receive the body of her 23-year-old son in a body bag the next day.
Shakil was among nine firefighters who died in the blaze – the highest such toll in a single incident in Bangladesh’s history, according to the Fire Service and Civil Defence (FSCD) department.
The blaze at BM Container Depot, a Dutch-Bangladesh joint venture, killed at least 49 people and injured more than 300 in one of the worst industrial accidents in the South Asian nation.
“My mother has not stopped crying since she heard the news. She has fainted a few times,” Moni Tarafder, Shakil’s elder brother told Al Jazeera over the telephone from his native Shukdara village in Khulna district.
Nearly two days after the deadly blaze erupted, the firefighters were still working to control it. Large, black plumes of smoke from the flaming container depot still dominate the skyline in Sitakunda.
The family of Rana Mia, another 23-year-old firefighter who lost his life in the fire, say they cannot accept his tragic death.
Mia was the son of a poor betel leaf shopkeeper and the family’s main breadwinner. He had just returned to Chittagong to restart his duties after spending a week with his family in central Bangladesh’s Manikganj district.
“He came to help his father build a new concrete house. He was very happy that he was able to help his family with his earning,” Mia’s brother-in-law Mohammad Rasel told Al Jazeera.
“How can he [Mia’s father] bear this loss?” Rasel asked.
While the cause of the container depot blaze has not been yet determined, multiple sources confirmed to Al Jazeera that the initial fire triggered multiple explosions, possibly because of the chemicals stored in the depot.
FSCD director Mohammad Rezaul Karim said chemicals, including hydrogen peroxide, were found in some of the containers at the depot. “But when the fire first broke out, we were told the depot only had readymade garment products,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Had our firefighters known there were chemicals, they could have taken more precautions,” he said.
Faruk Hossain Sikder, assistant director with Chittagong FSCD, told Al Jazeera that among the first batch of 26 firefighters sent to douse the fire, nine have died, three are missing and 14 others were gravely injured and hospitalised.
“This is because they were not properly informed that the depot had some explosive chemicals,” Sikder said, adding that they attended wearing regular fire safety suits which did not work in chemical fires.
Videos widely circulated on social media showed the firefighters dousing fire from a close distance, followed by a massive explosion like the one that occurred in Lebanon’s capital Beirut nearly two years ago.
FSCD director Karim, who is heading a seven-member team investigating the blaze, said the firefighters were asked to take extra precautions after deaths and injuries in the first batch.
“We could have averted such a tragedy,” he told Al Jazeera.
FSCD director general Brigadier General Md Main Uddin said he had not seen a tragedy of this scale in his tenure. “I have been with FSCD for nearly 25 years and I have never seen so many deaths in a single fire incident,” he told Al Jazeera.
FSCD spokesman Shahjahan Sikder said the previous highest casualty of firefighters in a single incident was three and it took place in Moulvibazar district’s Kulaura area in 2008.
“But the three firefighters didn’t die while dousing fire. They were in a FSCD vehicle and were rushing towards a fire spot. On their, way the vehicle was rammed by a moving train, killing three. Since they were on duty, we considered those deaths as the previous highest,” he told Al Jazeera.
The deaths of the firefighters as they fought the container depot blaze garnered tributes from many Bangladeshis.
“If there are any unsung heroes among the emergency services in Bangladesh, they are our firefighters,” Mashroof Hossain, the additional superintendent of police, wrote on Facebook.