Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the U.S. and Europe.
In its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said that "fire safety continues to be a key focus for brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh." Wal-Mart said it ceased working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues, and was working with its supplier factories to phase out production from buildings deemed high risk.
At the factory, relatives of the workers frantically looked for their loved ones. Sabina Yasmine said she saw the body of her daughter-in-law but had seen no trace of her son, who also worked there.
"Oh, Allah, where's my soul? Where's my son?" wailed Yasmine, who works at another factory in the area. "I want the factory owner to be hanged. For him, many have died, many have gone."
Mahbub said the fire broke out on the ground floor, which was used as a warehouse, and spread quickly to the upper floors. Many workers who retreated to the roof were rescued, he said. But he said that with no emergency exits leading outside the building, many victims were trapped, and firefighters recovered 69 bodies from the second floor alone.
"The factory had three staircases, and all of them were down through the ground floor," Mahbub said. "So the workers could not come out when the fire engulfed the building."
"Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower," he said.
Many victims were burned beyond recognition. The bodies were laid out in rows at a school nearby. Many of them were handed over to families; unclaimed victims were taken to Dhaka Medical College for identification.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed shock at the loss of so many lives.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it would stand by the victims' families.