KARACHI: More than 310 Pakistanis perished in horrific fires that destroyed two factories in Pakistan, an unprecedented industrial tragedy that prompted calls Wednesday for an overhaul of poor safety standards.
At least 289 people died at a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and the capital of Sindh province, just hours after 21 died at a shoe factory in Lahore, close to the Indian border.
In scenes of horror, relatives watched as loved ones jumped from windows of the four-storey building in Karachi where hundreds were working in a bid to escape the blaze, which began late Tuesday.
Karachi fire chief Ehtesham Salim said rescue workers were facing problems retrieving more bodies from the basement as it was filled with hot water after efforts to extinguish fire.
“There are places in the basement which are still smouldering. Water we used to extinguish the fire has made a pool of hot water in the large area of basement and we are trying to cool it down.”
“There is no electricity in the factory. Our operation has slowed down but we have not suspended our effort.”
Karachi’s top administration official, Karachi Roshan Shaikh, told AFP that more victims were being recovered and that he expected the toll to rise.
The toll rose rapidly during the day as firefighters extinguished smouldering embers and found dozens of dead huddled together in the basement and ground floor of the factory, where they suspect that the fire began.
“We didn’t find bodies in ones or twos, but in the dozens, which is why the death toll is increasing so alarmingly,” said Salim.
Many of those on the upper floors of the building were rescued or jumped to escape the inferno, although dozens broke limbs on impact with the street.
Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he had ordered an inquiry into both fires. Officials said the factory in Karachi in particular was in poor condition and lacked emergency exits.
“The building has developed cracks and there is a danger it can collapse any time,” Shaikh told a private news channel. “Owners of the factory have been absconding and raids are being conducted for their arrest,”he said.
Officials said two brothers who owned the company had been barred from leaving the country.
“Their names have been put on exit control list,” a senior government official told AFP.
Irfan Moton, chairman of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate, told AFP he believed there were 600 to 700 people in the factory when the fire broke out.
“We believe many people have come out, but still there are fears the final toll
could be higher,” he said.
In January 2009, 40 people were killed, more than half of them children, when a fire engulfed dozens of wooden homes in Karachi’s impoverished Baldia neighbourhood, but Tuesday’s tragedy was considered the deadliest in Pakistani industry.
“It was terrible, suddenly the entire floor filled with fire and smoke and the heat was so intense that we rushed towards the windows, broke its steel grille and glass and jumped out,” said Mohammad Saleem, 32, who broke a leg after jumping out of the second floor.
“I saw many people jumping out of windows and crying in pain for help,” he said.
According to workers, the factory produced underwear and plastic utensils.
The garment trade is vital to Pakistan’s shaky economy.
According to central bank data, the textiles industry contributed 7.4 percent to Pakistan’s GDP in 2011 and employed 38 percent of the manufacturing sector workforce. It accounted for 55.6 percent of total exports.
Noman Ahmed, from the NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, said few industries and businesses implement the law on safety and fire exits, finding it easy to avoid because of lack of effective monitoring.
“Most of our shopping centres and markets too have no safety mechanism, which the authorities should review seriously, otherwise it could cause graver tragedies in future,” he said.
Officials said the cause of the fire was unknown but Sindh industry minister Rauf Siddiqi said the owner could face negligence charges.
“We have ordered an inquiry into how the fire erupted and why proper emergency exits were not provided at the factory so that the workers could escape,” Siddiqi said.
In Lahore, flames also trapped dozens of workers in a shoe-making factory, killing 21 and injuring 14 others, where Tariq Zaman, a government official, blamed a faulty generator.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed “grave concern” over the fires and demanded immediate attention to ensuring safe working conditions for factory workers.
It called on the government to initiate criminal proceedings against the factory owners and also initiate effective monitoring of workplaces to prevent such tragic incidents in the future.
Major political parties including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F), Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf and the Awami National Party (ANP) have decided to observe a day of mourning of Thursday for the victims of the fire tragedy.