LAHORE: Rescuers on Tuesday scrambled through the rubble of a factory that collapsed in Lahore, in a desperate search for survivors as the death toll climbed to 16.
The three-storey building used to manufacture veterinary medicines came crashing down, probably the result of a boiler and a gas cylinder explosion at the premises in the congested Multan Road area on Monday, police said.
Rescue workers worked through the night, digging through the debris with bare hands desperate to answer trembling cries for help from mostly women and children trapped beneath concrete slabs.
Workers and volunteers used everything they could – hammers, axes, chisels and shovels – to shift the rubble and pull out the injured, coated in dust.
“Rescue officials pulled out 13 injured people alive from under the rubble,” an emergency services official told AFP.
“We are digging through the rubble very carefully to save as many people as possible, who may still be trapped,” he added, without specifying how many people are still trapped under the concrete mass.
Sobbing relatives gathered at the site, urging rescuers to intensify search operations as officials confirmed 16 deaths. The dead were identified as 10 women, three girls, one unidentified male, and two boys aged 12 and 14.
There are fears that the toll could rise further.
The accident at the 25-year-old Orient Labs (Private) Limited factory spotlighted poor safety procedures among Pakistani manufacturers and, with young boys among the dead, the use of child labour.
Overnight, rescue workers recovered a 10-year-old boy alive, cheered on by chants of “Allahu akbar” (God is greater) under generator-powered flood lights.
“We peeped through a hole drilled in one of the concrete slabs and saw a boy. He talked to us, we pulled him out,” rescue worker Mohammad Asif told AFP.
“He had no serious injuries but he fainted in shock after seeing the scene.”
It was unclear how many victims remained trapped, but different officials earlier estimated between 35 and 50 people were buried under the rubble.
Most were believed to be women and children, who were hired to package the medicines.
Mohammad Akram, 50, said he ran to the site shortly after the building collapsed, desperately worried about his 10-year-old son, Asad, a packer.
“I came here rushing and weeping but luckily my son has been rescued. He is injured and alive. But my 12-year old nephew is still missing.”
The main working hours were 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, but employees were quite often required to work late into the night as well, Akram said.
The rescue effort was hampered by narrow lanes and it took time for heavy cranes and excavators to reach the area.
“It’s a big disaster. It is too early to say when we’ll finish. We want to recover alive as many people as possible,” said rescue worker Ahmed Raza.
A small group of about 15 to 20 workers protested at the site on Monday, carrying the red flags of Pakistan’s Labour Party and shouting: “Who is accountable for the (deaths) of these innocent workers? We want an answer.”
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