In 2008, a deadly inferno engulfed the five-storey Gakhar Plaza in Saddar claiming 13 lives and destroying merchandise worth billions. Soon after the incident the structure collapsed and was later razed.
Four years on, the building has been rebuilt, three more floors have been added, but one thing is still the same — it does not have fire safety mechanism and the structure violates building by-laws.
In September, along with some 150 other buildings, Rawalpindi Cantonment Board (RCB) sent a notice to the owner of the plaza, Raja Shahid Zaffar, to take corrective action.
Both RCB head Rana Manzoor Ahmed Khan and Zaffar were not available for comments, but available documents, a visit to the sight and discussion with staff there suggest that so far no step has been taken to address the issue.
The RCB administration has also done nothing apart from sending notices to the plaza owner, who has now raised an eight-storey structure without measures such as external hydrant, emergency exit, sprinkle system and installation of the generator system in the basement of the building.
A survey conducted by the local authorities some two months back revealed that 153 industrial units were operational in the residential areas and high-rise buildings of Rawalpindi without the necessary fire-safety measures. And just like the Gakhar Plaza, in most of the cases, the 500 notices served to the owners have not yielded any positive response.
In March 2010, there was another serious incident in which six female students and working women died after their three-storey hostel located in the Chaklala Cantonment Board (CCB) caught fire.
There have been numerous other fire occurrences that have resulted in loss of property and money but “we await affirmative action from both the owners and local government”, said a resident of RCB.
According to an official of Rescue 1122, both the incidents claimed lives only because there were no emergency exits and internal fire fighting mechanism in the buildings.
The official further said recommendations about installation of fire combating equipment in the industrial units and high-rise buildings were not taken seriously by the concerned municipal authorities.
A Rescue 1122 official said following the Karachi garment factory incident, in which more than 250 people lost their lives, they arranged a training for 26 building inspectors of city district government regarding approval of maps for commercial buildings.
Most recently on Tuesday, two fire incidents were reported in the garrison city, one in a multi-story hotel near Faizabad and other at a store house of Molty Foam distributor in cantonments areas.
In both cases, there were no emergency exits in the buildings that led to two people being injured and loss of valuables worth millions, he said.
When contacted, District Coordination Officer (DCO) Rawalpindi Saqib Zafar said as many as seven industrial units in different areas of the city, namely Mohanpura, Dhok Dalaal and Hazara Colony, were sealed on Wednesday.
The industries functioning in residential areas after identification were directed to ensure fire safety measures until a policy is chalked out to relocate them, the DCO said. Seven units had not complied with the directions despite repeated calls, he added.
DCO Zafar assured that measures were being taken to relocate the industrial buildings out of the city and soon the hazard would be taken away from residential localities.
Commenting on the situation, District Emergency Officer (DEO) Rescue 1122 Dr Abdul Rehman said there is a need to sensitise the citizens about the fire hazards both in commercial buildings and residential units.
The thorough study of fire incidents in last four years in Rawalpindi has revealed that absence of fire fighting measure was one of the major causes of both human and property loss, he said.
Major fire incidents in Rawalpindi
1- December 20, 2008: Ghakhar Plaza, Saddar. 13 men including six firefighters died as the building collapsed
2- June 25, 2009: Shingahi Plaza, China Market, College Road. Six Persons injured, cloths shops got gutted
3- March 8, 2010: Girls Hostel, GHQ Road Chaklala Cantt. Eight girls suffocate to death.
4- October 22, 2011: Toy Shops, Sabzi Mandi, Raja Bazaar. Four shops burnt.
5- November 11, 2011: CD Shops, Imperial Market, Raja Bazaar. Many shops gutted.
6- April 30, 2012: Toyota Motors warehouse fire at Soan Camp.
7- June 19, 2012: Electronics Market, Afandi Colony, Bilal Road. 12-hour fire guts different shops.
8- June 22, 2012: Punjab Ghee Mill Model Town Humak fire.
9- December 25, 2012: Crown City Plaza Hotel, Faizabad. Two women faint after short-circuit in the room.
10- December 25, 2012: Molty Foam Warehouse, Sadar Cantonment. Fire that took place due to short-circuit was later put out after an effort of four hours.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 29th, 2012.