ASHULIA // A raging fire on Tuesday tore through a huge Bangladeshi garment factory that makes clothes for Western shops including Gap Inc. killing at least 16 workers and injuring 100 more.
Many of the dead were killed after they jumped from the building in a desperate attempt to escape the inferno, police and witnesses said, while workers said some exit doors were locked.
The multi-story plant in the industrial hub of Ashulia, 25 kilometres north of the capital Dhaka, is owned by one of the country's largest exporters, Hameem Group.
"At least 16 people have been killed and it is very likely to rise. Most died jumping from the 10th floor of the building," Rafiqul Islam, Dhaka's deputy police chief, said.
"People were panicking, they just leapt from the building. I saw at least three people jump," he said, adding that the fire was still burning.
One eyewitness, Rezaul Karim, told the local Sheershanews agency that the fire spread so fast it was like an explosion.
"There was an enormous blaze. It happened so quickly, everyone rushed to the side of the building to jump off. People at the bottom were holding out nets and blankets to try and catch them," he said.
At least 100 people were injured, many seriously, police at the scene said.
"Some were injured in a stampede, some inhaled too much smoke," police sub-inspector Mostofa Chowdhury said, adding that some workers reported that exit doors from the building were locked.
Bangladesh has been hit by days of violent protests by angry garment workers over low wages, but police ruled out any connection between the protests and the huge fire.
Hazrat Ali, who works at the factory, said that he had seen people jump from the upper floors of the 11-storey building.
"The fire originated at the canteen on the 11th floor and quickly spread. People could still be trapped because the factory often locked the exit gates," he said.
Some 14,000 workers are employed at the factory, said Sunil Kumar Sarkar, a senior official at the Hameem Group, who confirmed that the group produces clothes primarily for American brands including Gap and JC Penney Co. Inc.
"We are lucky in some ways that the fire started during lunch break because many workers go outside at that point. But it is still terrible, and we are concerned some workers are still inside," he said.
Huge plumes of smoke billowed from the building as scores of firefighters battled to douse the blaze.