The owners of Ali Enterprises, the ill-fated garment factory where 258 people died in a fire, have refuted all claims of negligence on their part and blamed the late arrival of fire tenders for the tragedy.
Shahid Bhaila and his brother Arshad Bhaila appeared before the two-member commission on Monday for the first time since the hearing began on September 17. The third owner, their father Abdul Aziz Bhaila, could not turn up because of health problems.
“Had the fire brigade arrived sooner, the loss could have been contained,” said Shahid Bhaila while testifying before the tribunal constituted by the Sindh government to determine the cause of fire.
Allegations of closed doors, an unregistered factory or no fire safety measures inside the building were all rejected by the owners.
Earlier, the chief fire officer, Ehtisham Saleem, informed the tribunal that fire tenders had reached the spot within 15 minutes and continued the operation till the fire was extinguished. But Shahid Bhaila disagreed, saying: “We rang up the fire emergency number many times, but did not get a response. I had to send my manager personally to the SITE fire station. Despite our hectic efforts, the first fire tender arrived after one hour.”
And then too, after a few minutes they went away to refill their fire tenders with water all the way to the Sakhi Hasan hydrant, as there was no other reservoir nearby, he added.
The fire fighters also avoided going to the warehouse, from where the owners claimed the fire broke out. “We kept on shouting to them the exact location from where intense flames were billowing but the fire officials bluntly refused and asked us not to interfere in their job,” alleged Shahid Bhaila.
In his statement, he did not dispute the fire fighters claim that they used all of their available fire engines in Karachi at the factory. “There were a lot of fire tenders, water bowsers and snorkels but it was too late,” he deposed.
Shahid Bhaila even offered the investigators to check his cell phone record to track how many times he had called the fire stations.
The employers did not, however, know if inflammable chemicals were being used at the garment factory.
Showing a photo album, the owners told the tribunal about the fire safely systems set up at every floor of the building and that all labour laws were being followed. While Arshad Bhaila claimed that the factory was registered with the Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution and Sindh Employees Social Security Institution, he could not come up with an answer when Justice (retd) Qurban Alvi asked if it was registered with the labour and civil defence departments.
“How can we put at risk our workers who had been working for us for over 15 years?” Arshad Bhaila replied on a query by the tribunal head. “We have lost our workforce, the factory has been gutted and our accounts have been seized. We are as much a victim as others,” he said with tears in his eyes.
After one week of efforts, the investigating officers could only come up with 16-second CCTV footage. The video showed flames intensifying and people running helter-skelter. “[From this] no one can conclude what is happening,” said Justice Alvi.
The judicial commission was given a week to probe the cause of fire. Around 29 statements have been recorded so far and the judges have asked the government to extend the tribunal by one week. “I hope to submit the report within the due course of time,” said Justice Alvi.
Sharif, a factory worker who survived the fire, was working at the second floor when the blaze engulfed the building and people started screaming for help. He and his father rushed toward the exit point but they heard people screaming at them to jump out of the window.
“Some workers had smashed a window and were climbing down a ladder,” he said. “I rescued a few women and my father before I got down also.”
“Another fire had broken out in the morning, but it was extinguished within a few minutes,” Sharif added.
Another factory worker, machine operator Muhammad Essa, was unaware of the morning fire incident. He said the fire erupted in the evening from the warehouse on the ground floor.
“Some workers started coming down the stairway but went back due to the fire in the stockroom, which was the only exit point,” Essa deposed.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th, 2012.