Bangladesh factory fire: Distraught relatives search for their loved ones who are still missing

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Dhaka, Jul 10 (PTI) 'I hope Tuli is just missing,' said the sister of a 15-year-old worker as she along with several other people frantically searched for their loved ones who were still unaccounted for in Thursday's fire at a food processing factory here in Bangladesh that allegedly employed many underage workers, according to media reports on Saturday.

A massive fire broke out at the factory in Narayanganj outside Bangladesh's capital on Thursday.

The authorities have put the death toll at 52 from the bodies recovered which, according to the list of missing persons put together at the site, include those of a large number of minors.

Firefighters were able to subdue the blaze at the building of Hashem Food Ltd, after 29 hours of frantic efforts around 10 pm on Friday, district Fire Service and Civil Defence Deputy Director Abdullah Al Arefin said.

Tuli, who recently passed her secondary school exams, had started working at the juice factory in Narayanganj a few days back.

'She thought she would start earning and save some money for her future,' the Daily Star Bangladesh quoted Jhuma Akter, Tuli's sister, as saying.

Tuli's body has not yet been identified among the victims of the deadly fire in the Narayanganj food factory. None of the bodies could be identified as they were charred beyond recognition.

But Jhuma was clinging on to hope.

'I hope Tuli is just missing,' she said. Jhuma was hoping that her sister would soon call with some outlandish story about why she is not home and that she will return to have that much-anticipated dinner.

It will take at least three weeks to identify the victims of the Hashem Foods factory by conducting DNA tests, officials said.

As the bodies were burnt beyond recognition, the authorities decided to conduct DNA tests to identify them.

The forensic unit of the police’s Criminal Investigation Department will conduct the tests.

Romana Aktar, special superintendent of police at CID, said at Dhaka Medical College Hospital on Friday they will collect samples from bones and teeth of the victims, and match the DNA with samples from relatives of the workers.

“It will take at least 21 days to complete the tests,” she said.

Another teenager Mitu Begum and her elder sister Mina worked at the food factory and both were scheduled to work in the same shift on Thursday.

'But my elder daughter's shift changed suddenly. She was preparing to go to work but at that time we heard the fire broke out in the factory,' Mohammad Billal Hossain, 14-year-old Mitu's father, said.

Crying and in a state of utter despair in front of the factory gate, he was asking people whether they saw his daughter? 'Was it our fault? My two daughters were working in the factory for bread and butter,' he said.

Like Tuli and Mitu, there were a number of girls working at the unit.

Witnesses said around 500 workers were working in the factory when the fire broke out and most were women and minors.

Holding a photograph of his daughter Fatema Begum, Sujan Mia had desperately been looking around the site since Friday morning to try to find his daughter.

Fatema, 13, who was working on the third floor of the building since Thursday morning.

' She called me at 7:00 pm and said 'Baba, I can't breathe … the smoke is everywhere. The supervisor had locked the gate of the staircase'. After that, I could not hear any more,' Sujan, in tears, the newspaper.

As the flames roared out of the factory, two women named Jhuma and Lima made a desperate dash towards the burning building, only to be stopped in their tracks by the police.

Unable to hold back the tears, the duo told law enforcers that they had come looking for their teenage sister, a factory worker who had not been home since the fire broke out.

Sajeeb Group Chairman Md Abul Hashem denied all responsibility for the factory fire and said there should not be any child labour in the factory.

Md Salauddin, the factory's admin officer, said, 'The issue about the age of the workers is wrong. They were hired after reviewing the relevant documents. If the age is low, it is the workers who tampered with the documents.' About 180 to 190 workers were at the factory when the fire erupted, according to him.

Witnesses and survivors claimed that workers would have survived if the authorities took prompt action and the third floor was not under lock and key.

Workers of the first and second floors jumped from the windows to save their lives when the fire broke out.

According to local residents, the supervisor of the factory used to lock the factory from outside so that child labourers could sneak out during working hours, Dhaka Tribune reported.

That is why many of them were left locked inside when the fire broke out. However, there is still no official data on how many children were working in the building as the rescue operation is still underway, it said.

The building did not have any fire extinguisher or an emergency exit route, according to officials.

Lt Col Zillur Rahman, the Fire Service's director of operations, said the building, spanning approximately 35,000 square feet, only had two exit staircases.

However, a building of this size needed at least four to five staircases, according to him.

Moreover, one of the exit staircases was locked, firefighters said.

Factory officials also denied that the factory had no fire safety system. PTI NSA AKJ NSA

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