In their initial report, fire brigade officials have conjectured that a short circuit might have caused the inferno which ravaged Ali Enterprises’ garment factory in Baldia.
“This is not the final report,” said the chief fire officer, Ehtisham Saleem. “We do not have a forensic expert to ascertain the fire’s cause and using our vast experience, we have merely surmised that a short circuit led to the inferno.”
This is the second time that fire department officials appeared before the judicial committee, which was formed by the Sindh government on September 12 to ascertain the cause behind the fire. A day earlier, the factory’s owners, Shahid Bhaila and his brother Arshad Bhaila, had appeared before the committee and castigated the fire department’s inefficiency in dealing with the incident.
During the proceeding, Justice (retd) Zahid Qurban Ali, who is heading the committee, asked the fire brigade how they deduced that a short circuit had caused the inferno. “Frequent power fluctuations can cause a short circuit. I think this was also the case with the Baldia factory fire,” said Saleem.
The fire chief refuted the factory owners’ claims that fire tenders arrived at the factory more than an hour after his department was contacted. “There was no delay on our part. The fire tenders reached the site within a short span of time. We receive the first message at around 6:37 pm and a fire tender was dispatched from the SITE fire station within 15 minutes,” he said. “I have the records and I can show them to the committee.” He also denied Shahid Bhaila’s claims that because of a lack of reservoirs in SITE, the fire tenders had driven all the way to Sakhi Hasan to replenish water supply.
On Monday, Sharif, a factory worker, told the committee that he heard from his colleagues that there had been another minor fire in the factory the same day that the bigger one engulfed the building later on. But Saleem said that this was all hearsay. “No fire broke out earlier in the day. A minor fire was reported in the factory about two to three months ago.”
The judicial committee also questioned the fire chief about reports that they had refused to go inside the godown to extinguish the flames. “Nobody but fire officials have an idea of where to start a rescue operation.”
He said that there were many flammable items, including chemicals, which fed the flames. “The fire fighters entered the factory, doused the fire and rescued many workers. We also pulled out charred bodies through broken windows.”
In its report, the fire brigade also held other government departments responsible for not playing their role. It claimed that nobody had inspected the factory. In his statement, the chief fire officer said that the corridors were packed with workers and machines, leaving a slim chance of escape. “Some people fainted inside the building because toxic smoke suffocated them,” he said.
When Justice Alvi asked them about the extreme heat and foul smell emanating from the basement even a week after the incident, the fire official said, “It might have been caused by chemicals, rotting machines as well as other flammable goods.”
Saleem added that the fire brigade uses water to put out infernos, but sometimes have to use carbon dioxide. “It depends on the intensity of the fire,” he said.
Justice Alvi told the media that before submitting its report, the committee’s members would visit hospitals to collect eyewitness accounts. He also expressed his concern about forensic department’s performance, which has yet to come up with a conclusion about the cause of the fire.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2012.