A huge fire swept through a double-storey shoe factory in a residential neighbourhood of Lahore on Tuesday, killing 23 workers and injuring over a dozen more.
Officials, however, feared the death toll could rise as some of the injured workers are in a critical condition.
Twenty bodies and five workers with severe burns were brought to Mayo Hospital, the medical superintendent told The Express Tribune. He added that three of the injured were in a critical condition.
Another three bodies and nine injured were taken to the nearby Mian Munshi Hospital.
The dead included Rajab Ali, the owner of Golden Shoes Factory. The victims, all between 14 and 35 years, hailed from Okara, Renala Kurd, Shadra, Multan, Kot Radha Kishan, Sukkur and Lahore.
Residents said that the fire started in an electricity generator installed right at the main gate of the factory. They rushed to rescue the trapped workers, but could not get inside the building due to the raging flames.
The ground floor of the factory was gutted and the surviving workers rushed upstairs to the first floor.
“Our fire crew had to break the brick-wall of the factory to get to the workers trapped inside,” Dr Ahmed Raza, the district officer of Rescue 1122, told The Express Tribune.
Chemicals stored in the factory made the blaze spread quickly, allowing the workers virtually no time to escape, Raza added. “Most of the fatalities took place on the ground floor. They died of suffocation and burns.”
Raza was not sure if the conflagration was triggered by an electric short-circuit or a technical fault in the power generator.
The fire crews succeeded in dousing the blaze after several hours and rescue workers had evacuated all those trapped inside the factory.
Multan Khan, the superintendent of police, said that the shoe factory was set up more than two years ago by Rajab Ali, a resident of Multan. Since it was an accident, police have not registered any case, he added.
Syed Shafiq Shah, who lives in the neighbourhood, said that around 70 people worked in the factory in two shifts. “When the fire broke out, 40 workers were inside the building,” he told The Express Tribune.
Residents saw flames bellowing out of the main gate of the factory around 3:40pm. “Workers were crying for help – but we couldn’t do anything as the blaze had engulfed the entire building,” he said.
Muhammad Naeem, a rickshaw driver, said that he saw three to four workers managing to escape the inferno.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was “grieved” by the loss of lives in the “tragic incident”. He announced a compensation of Rs500,000 each for the dead and Rs75,000 each for the injured. He also formed a team to conduct an inquiry into the incident.
Khwaja Salman Rafique, an aide to the chief minister, said that the provincial government would launch a crackdown against thousands of factories in the city which do not have proper safety measures in place.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who is in China, also “expressed shock and grief over the loss of precious lives and directed the concerned authorities to provide best medical treatment to the injured”, his media office said. (With additional reporting by Ali Usman)
Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2012.