KARACHI: “I stopped inquiring about the investigation into the Baldia factory fire the day the owners were given bail on court orders,” says Sharifa Memon who lost her 23-year-old son, Shahbaz Memon, in the blaze exactly a year ago.
Many people say that if the authorities had shown a bit of “persistence” in saving the lives of people trapped inside, it would have made a huge difference.
“At least I would have been satisfied today to know that someone was as concerned as I was to save my family,” adds Ms Memon.
Baldia factory fire, considered to be the country’s worst industrial incident, killed more than 250 people and injured many others on Sept 11, 2012.
Families were understandably distraught to find their loved ones trapped inside the blazing factory for hours on end, while firefighters wrestled with hosepipes to douse the blaze. Ali Enterprise, the garment factory in Baldia Town, SITE, stands as a stark reminder of the nightmarish incident. For many it is a bitter reminder of how inadequacy is considered a norm, worth more than saving a life.
The street behind the factory houses majority of the families that worked in it. Though some still speak about and question the owners, the nature and efficacy of the investigations into the fire, others have resigned to the fact that their loss cannot be compensated for, and choose not to speak about it.
While Ms Memon has eight of her children to look after, and is being helped by her eldest son, since the incident it is Shahbaz she misses the most. “He came to have lunch before leaving for the factory. When the fire broke out around 6pm, I was pacified by my neighbours that it’s not that bad, and that he’d be back safe and sound. We found his body a month later, barely recognisable,” she explains while holding his photo.
His family received the compensation money like many other families in Kumharwara, Baldia, did. Some saved the money for their children while others still wonder how to utilise it. Mohammad Babar has kept aside the compensation for his two daughters after his wife was killed in the fire. Apart from his wife, Mr Babar lost his two nieces, a nephew, his brother-in-law and an aunt in the fire that evening.
Speaking about the day itself, he said that he received a phone call from his wife in the evening about a fire that broke out in the basement of the factory. Working in the same factory with his wife for almost 14 years, it was for the first time in months that he had stayed back at home as he wasn’t feeling well that day.
“I heard an explosion in the background, while Nasreen asked me to hurry, and went with a few men from our street to help them. I wasn’t aware of the intensity of the blaze at all,” he adds.
The men broke in through a window at the back, as the main gate was locked. There was complete silence inside and the area was full of smoke. As the men broke a few windows, as others were bolted, to let the smoke out, they finally found people lying scattered on the floor and the stairs.
“I just squatted there not able to understand how it could happen so quickly. There had been a few incidents before as well, but they never claimed any life. This was the worst I could have seen but there was more,” he said.
Mr Babar finally found his wife’s body. He recognised it through the remaining part of the printed clothes she wore to work that day, stuck to her knee.
At present, labour organisations and trade unions are preparing to sue an Italy-based audit firm that certified Ali Enterprises safe and following international standards of labour. The fire incident occurred soon after the factory was given the certificate, bringing to the fore many other hidden facts. For instance, the employee cards of Mr Babar and his wife, Nasreen Naz, didn’t have the factory’s name, rather carried only a few details about the job they did at the factory.
Mr Babar said there were basically two exits in the factory; one was the main entrance gate, and the other a staircase leading to the rooftop. On the day of the fire, both the exits were locked. Others said that the windows of the factory were bolted as well, as the owners feared losing the merchandise to robbery.
Mohammad Farhan, who had been working at the factory since the age of eight, lost his life while trying to save others. His mother said that they have received part of the compensation money and even though she doesn’t want to, she’ll have to send others to nearby factories. “We need to survive. I lost my son and that grievance will stay for life, but I have my other children to look after too,” she added quietly.
Just outside the factory, Mohammad Jabbar waits for the monthly ration to be distributed. His son, Mohammad Jahanzaib, was recognised by a friend of his at the Edhi Foundation morgue in Sohrab Goth around midnight. A few months after the incident, the owners started distributing monthly food rations in order to win over the people. Without any questions asked, the father, looking tired, starts explaining: “I have made my peace with the fact that my son is not coming back. I’d want more than anyone else that the culprits be punished. But till the time that happens, how do I provide for my family?”