KARACHI: For Feroze Khan, a senior fire brigade official, it was the toughest day of his life.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in 29 years of my career. There have been devastating fires before but so many deaths just boggle the mind,” he said. “They had no chance of survival.”
Twenty-two hours after the fire broke out at the factory, smoke was still coming out of the three-storey building on Wednesday. The heat of the floor burned the feet and the water left by the night-long fire fight simmered. Every few minutes a body would come out, followed by an unconscious rescue worker.
Slippers, a purse and some identity cards were spared by the raging fire. Half-done jeans hung from stitching machines. Blood splattered the washroom on the second floor from where people had attempted to escape.
“Bodies were lying on top of each other in a heap. They must have struggled hard to find an exit,” Feroze Khan said talking about a part of the factory where 100 bodies were found – some charred beyond recognition.
As rescue workers searched the building for bodies, some pointed the finger at a lack of ventilation. All of the windows of the square-shaped factory were sealed with iron grilles – a common practice at garment factories to avoid theft.
Reportedly, 700 workers were inside the factory, which is spread over 2,500 square yards. A single entry and exit point was used by all of them.
A large panel displaying emergency exit plan was affixed to a wall at the charred building. It points out the locations of the fire extinguishers, a water hydrant and the place where everyone is supposed to converge in case of a fire.
“The owners had a good reputation. They wouldn’t risk the lives of the workers. It is a big name and they have annual sales of Rs4 billion to Rs5 billion,” Irfan Moton, the chairman of the SITE Association of Industry, was quick to defend the entrepreneurs.
As an export-oriented industry, Ali Enterprises would have had to follow the occupational safety guidelines of foreign importers. “We [will] have to go through regular safety audits,” Moton added.
Government agencies and officials tried to shift the blame on each other. Sindh Industries Minister Rauf Siddiqui passed the buck on to civil defence and the home department. “It was their responsibility to ensure that all safety precautions were followed,” he said during a visit to the factory. “But now we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again. I am ordering an inspection of all factories.”
The job of keeping a check on occupational safety is distributed among different departments. “There has to be a one-window operation for everything – from issuing permits to clearing the building plan,” the minister suggested.
After declaring the factory structure dangerous, the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) also steered clear of the disaster. The building plan was approved by the Sindh Industrial Trading Estates (SITE) Limited. “The factory is not even in our jurisdiction. I can only say that this structure has to be demolished now,” said Aqeel Abidi, a member of the regulatory authority’s dangerous buildings committee.
The incident also exposed the fragility of the emergency response system of the city. Before the fire tenders arrived at the scene on Tuesday evening, people from nearby areas had already gone in the factory to save those trapped inside.
Even a day after the disaster struck, there were more volunteers – especially Muttahida Qaumi Movement workers – at the site than any government department officers. The party had also set up camps outside the factory and at Civil hospital to guide the bereaved families.
“Two hundred members of different unit offices of Sector 22 are here,” said Waseem, as he took out charred remains from the top floor with help of Chippa volunteers. “Government officials are only making statements. Not many of them have bothered to come here.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.