By Anis Ahmed
DHAKA (Reuters) - More than 100 people were killed in a fire that razed a crowded Dhaka neighborhood overnight, and the toll is expected to rise as rescue workers search for more bodies in the smoldering debris, TV channels reported on Friday.
"It seemed like hell broke loose," said a wailing woman, looking for her daughter and son in what remained of the centuries-old Kayettuli neighborhood, one of the most densely populated in Dhaka and in the heart of the Bangladeshi capital.
The blaze was the worst to sweep through the capital since 1971, the fire brigade said, and the country's police chief, Nur Mohammad, said it was difficult to give an exact casualty toll right now.
A fire brigade official said 87 bodies had been recovered from the area so far.
"I was on the scene through last night, and can guess the number of death could be around 100. But we have to wait to know the final casualty figures," Mohammed told Reuters.
TV channels put the death toll at between 107 and 150, including a dozen people who died in hospital from injuries sustained in the blaze which was believed to have been started by an explosion in an electrical transformer.
Firefighters said narrow streets and the density of the buildings hampered their access, and the chemicals in the area helped the fire spread quickly. The neighborhood is home to several modern multi-storey structures, and small, tin-roofed dwellings, some which also house chemical factories.
"I never have had such a harrowing experience in my 40 years here," said a doctor at the burns unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, as patients crammed the corridors and sobbing relatives searched for their loved ones.
TV channels reported nearly 150 people, many suffering from serious burns, had been admitted to hospitals after the fire.
The government announced Friday as a day of mourning. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed her deep grief over the fire and ordered the best possible treatment of the victims.
"I have no words to console them," said Home Minister Sahara Khatun while visiting the hospital late Thursday.
Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia also went to the hospital, with leaders of her Bangladesh Nationalist party.
Police officers and firefighters said they would provide an official tally of casualty figures as soon as search and rescue operations were over, most likely Friday afternoon.
"We are still trying to help people out of the debris and have no exact death toll yet," said one police officer in the old Dhaka area.
The fire started at around 10.30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. EDT) on Thursday, and spread quickly through the residential and commercial buildings in the area.
Some families lost up to eight members, witnesses said, and many residents were also trapped inside the buildings as they rushed to get out.
"Flames leapt up to sixth floor of buildings. It was a huge inferno," said a Reuters witness.
"I became too baffled by seeing streams of dead and injured being pulled out of the burned down dormitories," added Abdul Baset, an elderly resident.
The government has ordered an investigation to find the exact cause of the fire.
(Reporting by Anis Ahmed; Editing by Miral Fahmy)