Electrical wiring overloaded by sewing equipment is believed to have sparked the flames in the high-rise building. Dozens of workers, breaking for lunch at a make-shift canteen on the roof, were unable to descend smoke-filled stairwells and were trapped far out of reach of ladder trucks. The building, like most factories in Bangladesh, lacked fire escapes, sprinklers, and other modern safety equipment. As the flames intensified — fueled by piles of clothes and fabric — workers trying to flee said they found at least one of the factory's gates padlocked. Several were forced to fashion ropes from rolls of fabric to attempt to scale down the side of the building.
The obvious comparison was to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in 1911, in which 146 people died. But the death toll at the Bangladeshi factory outstripped that of a variety of more recent accidents:
28 died when a chemical plant exploded in Flixborough, England in 1974.
23 died as a result of a chemical explosion in Houston, 1989.
21 died in the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a molasses tank burst and spewed sticky molasses all over the North End of Boston.
11 people died in the 2010 explosion of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, which caused the infamous BP oil spill.
5 people died when Xcel Energy’s Hydropower Generation plant in Georgetown, CO caught fire in 2007.
One thing to note here is that jobs at chemical plants and oil rigs are often recognized as dangerous and paid accordingly. The median yearly salary of a US chemical operator in 2009 was $54,270, well above the national average. Meanwhile, Bangladeshi workers have the lowest wages of any garment workers in the world — in 2010, about $64 a month.
Accident data via Wikipedia.