At least 258 people perished as flames raced through a garment factory in Karachi, in what is being described as the worst industrial fire in the history of Pakistan.
In scenes of horror, relatives watched as loved ones jumped from windows of the four-storey building in a bid to escape the blaze, which began late Tuesday.
With no emergency exits and hundreds of workers crammed into a dilapidated factory, the building became an inferno in minutes, where hundreds suffocated or burnt to death. The cause of the garment factory fire was still not clear till the filing of this report.
The tragedy struck on the night shift at Ali Enterprises on the Hub River Road Karachi SITE (Sindh Industrial Trading Estate), where employees made ready-to-wear clothing dispatched across the country and exported abroad. But on Tuesday night profits turned to ashes with the accident only adding to the litany of woes that face the everyday Pakistani.
Karachi fire chief Ehtesham Salim said rescue workers were facing problems retrieving more bodies from the basement as it was filled with hot water after efforts to extinguish the inferno.
The toll rose rapidly during the day as firefighters extinguished smouldering embers and found dozens of dead huddled together in the basement and ground floor of the factory.
“There are places in the basement which are still smouldering. Water we used to extinguish the fire has made a pool of hot water in the large area of basement and we are trying to cool it down,” said Salim, adding that there is no electricity in the factory.
Karachi commissioner Roshan Shaikh said that more victims were being recovered and that he expected the toll to rise.
Metal grilles on windows
At 6pm on Tuesday, all hell broke loose at the factory when a fire engulfed the building. As employees dashed toward the stairways, they only found a single exit with over 700 workers trying to make their way out, survivors told The Express Tribune.
Many of them were women and teenage boys, who worked as helpers for the women at the sewing machines. Other than the basement, all floors had been checked for survivors by late Wednesday evening. While some bodies were found in groups of 20 to 30 people on multiple floors, most victims were found next to windows.
There were metal grilles on most windows, ruling out any chance of the victims jumping out to save their lives.
Most of the bodies were retrieved from the second and third floors. The victims on these floors died of suffocation as their bodies weren’t burnt. At least 25 bodies were found from the factory’s basement as the rescue operation was still ongoing in the early hours of Thursday.
Inadequate fire safety measures and lack of emergency exits were cited as the main reasons behind the tragic death of so many people at the textile factory.
Survivors said they heard a blast which they initially believed was a tyre burst from a vehicle passing by. But soon, smoke billowed and a stampede followed. A single three-foot doorway was not big enough for the entire staff to escape.
Some Reports suggested that it may have been the fourth fire in the factory within a couple of years. Only a day before the fire broke out, a smaller blaze was put off. Despite all this, the workers had never been through a fire drill, nor were there a sufficient number of fire extinguishers in the factory.
“We are also looking at the criminal aspect,” SSP Amir Farooqi said, adding that there had been fires in the past at the textile factory.
It took at least 40 fire tenders accompanied by a number of water tankers and three snorkels to extinguish the flames after almost 24 hours. While one snorkel was used to put out the fire, two others were utilised to pull out people from the building.
Meanwhile, the owners of Ali Enterprises, Shahid Bhaila and his brother, Arshad Bhaila, were on the run. Officials said the two brothers who owned the company have been barred from leaving the country.
“We tried to take them in protective custody as they might be killed in retaliation. But we could not find them, but raids are ongoing,” said DIG (West) Akram Naeem Barokha, adding that their names have been put on exit control list.
Sindh’s Inspector General Police has formed a five-member inquiry committee with Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) DIG Manzoor Mughal as its head. A case has been registered on behalf of the state against the owners of the textile factory.
Manzoor Mughal while quoting initial investigations told The Express Tribune that the owners of the factory had not complained to any law enforcement agencies about extortion threats.
“We have heard from television reports that the factory was burnt down due to the non-payment of an extortion demand of Rs50 million,” Mughal said, adding that investigations had proved such reports to be untrue.
Talking about the cause of the fire, Mughal said initial investigations had revealed that there was a ‘kunda system’ (illegal electricity connections) at the factory, adding that before the fire erupted, three explosions were heard.
Furthermore, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has called for national action to protect workers’ health and safety, following the fire in Karachi.
Meanwhile, Sindh High Court Chief Justice Mushir Alam took suo motu notice of the deadly inferno on Wednesday. While talking to Express News, various nationalist leaders of Sindh said they were adamant about going ahead with the strike against the Local Government ordinance despite calls by various parties to postpone it in order to mark a mourning day for the factory fire tragedy. Sindh United Party Chairman Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah said that although they too were saddened by this national tragedy, the strike would be observed as per schedule. Awami Tehreek leader Ayaz Latif Palijo also said that the strike would go ahead, no matter what. (Additional input from AGENCIES)
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.