Two Takeaways from Deadly Bangladesh Hazmat Explosion

The Bangladesh fire service suffered its single-largest loss early this month when firefighters responded to a fire at a storage depot near its busiest port. The fire turned into a deadly explosion that killed the nine firefighters as well as 32 workers and civilians; there were 200 reported injuries.

The fire and explosion occurred late June 4 at container storage site in Sitakunda, about 25 miles from Chittagong’s port. BBC reports that Chittagong is the country’s largest port and that Sitakunda is a transfer point for cargo containers. A fire broke out at B.M. Container Depot, followed by a violent explosion and continued fire.

The incident is under investigation by at least two teams, one led by the fire and civil defense departments. Yet, there are some things we already know and can learn from.

Bangladesh has a checkered history of industrial safety. According to the Dhaka Tribune, there have been 12 industrial disasters since 2005 that have caused more than 1,000 deaths. If you go back 20 years, 2,000 people died in 26 factory fires. In this fire and explosion, there are conflicting reports.

A spokesman for the depot told BenarNews that no information was kept from the authorities about the containers filled with chemicals.

“The containers the army experts team detected are full of hydrogen peroxide. Actually, there was no chemical other than hydrogen peroxide in the yard,” said Shamsul Siddiqui, a spokesman for the depot operator. Siddiqui added that a depot worker who called the emergency number informed dispatch of the chemicals.

Fire officials told a different version. They claim they were unaware there were chemicals stored on the site, and that those containers were not accurately labeled. Both of these, they say, led to the catastrophe and hampered rescue efforts.

“We were not provided the information that there were chemicals inside the depot. If we knew about the chemicals, our rescue operation module would be different,” Mohammad Kamruzzaman, a fire department official in Sitakunda, told BenarNews. “What seemed to us is there was a fire incident which caused the explosion. We are not sure how many explosions took place.”

Officials reported finding four sealed containers and 20 unsealed containers of an unknown chemical. BenarNews reports that explosives specialists were on scene to prevent contamination from the containers. The Dhaka Tribune reported that officials found “a huge cache of chemicals, which hampered the rescue operations.”

Early speculations are that the hydrogen peroxide reacted to the air and water introduced by firefighting efforts and triggered the explosions.

“Hydrogen peroxide alone can hardly cause any explosion. But if it comes in the contact of fire or flame it will aggravate the fire,” S.M. Mizanur Rahman, a chemistry professor at Dhaka University told BenarNews. “It is very hard to know whether there were any flammable chemicals in the container yard beside the hydrogen peroxide.”

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration warns that in quantities at or above 7,500 pounds hydrogen peroxide, “presents a potential for a catastrophic event as a toxic or reactive highly hazardous chemical.”

At least one source says the nine line-of-duty deaths was the most in the country’s history. “Never in the history of the fire department have so many firefighters died,” said Purnachandra Mutsuddi, who led the firefighting effort at the depot, according to Agence France-Presse.

That’s not a milestone anyone wants to brag about, or forget.

Here are two takeaways this tragic event can offer.


This isn’t a Bangladesh-only problem. This situation is eerily reminiscent of the West, Texas disaster. There, volunteer firefighters rolled up on an industrial fire just prior to a massive explosion in April 2013. Ten firefighters died, as did two civilians assisting with firefighting; upwards of 200 people were injured. Subsequent investigations found that inspections, enforcement and compliance were lax. There’s no arguing that countries like the United States, Canada and Japan have better industrial safety controls in place than does Bangladesh. But, having blind faith in those systems working as they are supposed to is folly.


Not every hazmat call comes in as a hazmat call. Like the explosion in West, Texas, this was initially a fire call. This is where a robust and accurate chemical inventory and inspection (and enforcement) program are critical. Training fire and other first responders, who are not hazmat experts, to quickly recognize that the call has hazmat implications is also critical. As we’ve seen in Texas and Bangladesh, lives depend on these early decisions.

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