ISLAMABAD: Efforts to unravel the truth about the Nov 1 Gadani ship blaze are proving to be harder than expected as a combination of hazy facts and conflicting figures continue to throw the investigation off course. Since the casualty figures and the exact number of labourers unaccounted for are openly contested, fears have been raised over a possible cover-up by the authorities.
A blast followed by a series of explosions ignited a massive fire on the 24,000-ton decommissioned vessel, MT Aces, that continued to burn for four days. According to police, 26 labourers were killed and more than 50 wounded while four are unaccounted for. A top aide to the Balochistan chief minister, however, said more than 70 people are confirmed dead and more than 90 have been missing since the day of the incident.
Blast rips through ship in Gadani; 16 dead
“We are still gathering details of casualties,” Jan Achakzai, a special assistant to Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, told The Express Tribune. However, he wouldn’t say how many workers had been on board the gigantic Japanese vessel when the tragedy struck. “Normally, more than 400 workers are hired to break a ship of this size,” he said.
A provincial lawmaker of the ruling PML-N from Lasbela, of which Gadani is a part, gave an even higher death toll. “More than 100 workers have been killed and dozens injured in the conflagration – eight of the injured are in critical condition,” MPA Prince Ahmed Ali Ahmedzai told The Express Tribune. “The casualty figure could be higher,” said Ahmedzai, who had visited the site along with Chief Minister Zehri two days after the tragedy.
The vessel was moored at Plot No 54 of the Gadani shipbreaking yard. Ahmedzai said 18 of the crew members who had navigated MT Aces into the yard were Indians, and they have been missing since the deadly inferno. Achakzai neither confirmed nor denied the presence of Indians among the crew. “I have no knowledge,” he said curtly when the question was put to him.
SP Lasbela Zia Mandokhel, the lead police investigator in the case, gave a much lower death toll. “Around 26 labourers were killed and 28 injured,” he told The Express Tribune on Friday.
Giving a break-up, he said around 10 of the victims were from Dir, nine from Muzaffargarh, five from Gadani and three from Karachi. “Four labourers are missing and presumed dead – two each from Gadani and Karachi,” he added. “Eighty to 85 workers were working on the ship when the fire swept through the vessel.”
Interestingly however, SHO Gadani Rehmatullah Chattha said we might never know how many workers were on board the ship. “Lead contractor Gulzameen, who kept a record of the workers, was perhaps the only man who knew the exact figures, had also died in the incident.”
Firefighters struggle to douse Gadani ship blaze
According to SP Mandokhel, most of the fatalities belonged to Dir, Swat, Malakand and Abbottabad regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Gadani and Karachi. MPA from Dir Sahibzada Sanaullah, who had travelled to Gadani a day after the deadly conflagration, claimed that 22 victims were from his constituency alone.
“The commissioner of Kalat region, of which Lasbela is a district, had told me that in all 26 workers had died – 22 were from Dir and four from Punjab,” MPA Sanaullah told The Express Tribune. “I had brought back eight bodies in coffins with me,” he added. “At least 11 people from Dir, Swat and Shangla are unaccounted for.” Sources in Hub, of which Gadani is a part, said that at least 11 workers from the area have been missing since the day of the incident.
MPA Sanaullah added that 53 people from K-P were among the injured. He also suspected that the authorities were hiding something. “When I went to search for the bodies of victims from my district, I was told that a person I was looking for was not among the dead,” he added. “Not satisfied with the officials when I went down, I found the body of the person I was looking for.”
MPA Sanaullah believes there were a large number of undocumented labourers of Bengali origin among the missing. “They were having tea aboard the ship when the blasts sparked off the fire,” he added.
The owner of Plots No. 17, 18 & 19 at the shipbreaking yard has given an exaggerated toll. “At least 250 lives have been lost in the incident,” Nazeer Khan told The Express Tribune. And to substantiate his claim, he said “at least 600-strong labour force is required to break a super oil tanker of MT Aces’ size for scarp.”
“We may never know how many labourers died in the incident, because a large number of them were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh,” he said while endorsing what MPA Sanaullah said.
If these claims are to be believed, then the question arises where are their bodies? Some labour leaders believe some of the bodies might have been incinerated without a trace.
According to Khan, Gadani is one of the most efficient shipbreaking yards of the world. A normal size ship is broken down to scarp within 30 to 45 days, while the same size vessel is dismantled in more than six months at any other shipbreaking yards in the world. “How is it possible for a couple of dozen of people to break such a huge ship?”
Gadani is the world’s third largest shipbreaking yard, consisting of 132 plots located across a 10-kilometre-long beachfront, about 50 kilometres northwest of Karachi.
Abida Sharafat, a Karachi-based labour rights activist, revealed that the Gadani shipbreaking yard employs around 25,000 workers – a majority of them are from different parts of K-P. “Contractors prefer to hire labourers from Swat, Shangla and Dir because they are hard working,” Sharafat told The Express Tribune.
In pictures: Gadani shipbreaking yard fire
According to preliminary investigations, Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor, the owner of Plot No 54, where the tragedy had happened, was solely responsible for the deaths and destruction because he had asked his workers to start breaking the ship without obtaining prior official permission or clearance. Ghafoor is absconding, while the manager of his company, Chaudhry Abdul Hafeez, has been taken into custody.
SP Mandokhel said around three to four contractors were working on the ship. One of them, Farooq Bengali, told investigators that he had hired 22 labourers – and only one of them is missing. “Investigations are under way and we are checking offices and records,” he added.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has formed an investigation team at the dederal level, while Director General Ports and Shipping Admiral Nasir Shah is also looking into the incident separately. Lasbela’s deputy commissioner had conducted initial inquiry and its reported was submitted to the chief minister within 24 hours of the incident.
Gadani Shipbreaking Yard Labor Union President Babu Kareem Jan blamed the contractor for the deadly tragedy. “The ship had to be cleansed of toxic gas and combustible material before breaking it, but the contractor ignored the safety protocol and put the lives of workers in danger,” he told The Express Tribune.
Achakzai said the officials responsible to ensure implementation of relevant laws for safety of workers would be taken to task for their criminal negligence.
Neither the Balochistan government nor the federal government has announced any compensation for the victims. Jan Achakzai said the errant contractor was responsible to compensate the heirs of the victims. However, he hastened to add that the government was also considering some relief package for the victims.
MPA Sanaullah appealed to the government to announce a financial compensation package for the victims and also unmask those responsible for the loss of so many lives.
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Zafar in Quetta and Iftikhar Firdous in Peshawar)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2016.
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