Dawn News

Desperate jump for life

A man mourns the death of relatives after a fire erupted in a garment factory in Karachi. — Photo by AFP

KARACHI: The fire that broke out in a Karachi industrial unit on Tuesday evening died down on Wednesday night but only after killing at least 258 people, including dozens of women and a number of members of same families.

The deadliest incident in the country’s industrial history raised many questions about safety standards and authorities’ role in treating labourers.

Dozens of workers escaped death by jumping from windows of the multi-storey factory building in one of the country’s largest industrial estates, Site, in densely-populated Baldia Town, before rescue organisations responded to their call for help.

Nearly 100 rescue personnel, including firefighters, battled for more than 24 hours only to retrieve the charred bodies from three floors and basement of the factory — Ali Enterprises — producing garments for export. “The cause of fire is not yet known,” said Salim Ehtasham, chief of the Karachi fire department. “We are focused on firefighting, finding if anyone alive inside and retrieving the bodies. Most of the people were found dead in the basement and on the first floor of the building. Bodies are charred beyond recognition and in some cases one can’t identify a victim’s gender.”

A senior official said the fire started from the basement and travelled to three other floors of the building. He said there were several emergency exits inside the building but all of them were locked permanently.

The pace of retrieving the bodies got momentum in the middle of the night when rescue workers finally broke down one of exterior walls of the building to get access to the first and second floors. Recovery of the bodies one after another outnumbered the ambulances parked outside the building on Hub River Road.

Dozens of fire tenders took part in the rescue operation. DSNG (digital satellite news gathering) vans of a number of news channels rushed to the site for live coverage of the horrific incident.

As charity organisations, Edhi and Chhipa, increased the number of ambulances by calling vehicles from other areas of the city, mortuaries in hospitals went out of space to accommodate the bodies.

After watching the incident on TV channels, family members of factory workers started converging outside the building in a desperate attempt to know about the fate of their loved ones. Hardly anyone among them got any good news and most of them returned home by Wednesday afternoon after their fears had turned into reality.

After a ‘no more space’ call from the managements of Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, Civil Hospital Karachi and Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, the bodies were moved to the Edhi morgue in Sohrab Goth. “Right now I can confirm that 258 people died in the tragedy,” Commissioner Karachi Roshan Ali Sheikh said. “Among them 173 victims have been identified and their bodies have been handed over to their families. We are also carrying out DNA matching of the unidentified bodies and hope to complete the process in the next few hours. I don’t think the number of the bodies will increase to a large extent from here,” he added.

The survivors being treated in hospitals narrated their nightmarish experience but were unclear about the exact cause of the deadliest blaze.

Shehzad Ali, 47, who jumped out of an iron-grilled window to save his life but got his pelvis and an arm fractured, said there were more than 500 people, including 50 women, inside the factory when the fire engulfed the building.

“How the gates got closed on that day when they always remain open,” wondered Ali, who was under observation at the surgical ward of Civil Hospital, believing that the incident was somewhat like a conspiracy.

But the authorities described the tragedy as an accident and ordered multiple inquiries.

“A judicial inquiry has already been ordered,” Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad told reporters during a visit to the factory, referring to the announcement made by Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah who appointed Justice (retd) Zahid Qurban Alvi as inquiry officer. The CM also announced Rs300,000 compensation for families of each of those killed in the incident.

“The orders have also been issued for action against those officials whose negligence led to the tragedy. I assure you no-one will be spared. It’s a national tragedy and the entire nation is in a state of trauma,” he said.

Hours after the chief minister’s announcement, the Site-B police station of Baldia Town registered an FIR (343/2012) against factory owners – Shahid Bhaila, Rashid Bhaila and Ali Bhaila – under Sections 302 (premeditated murder), 324 (attempt to murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code on behalf of the state.

“Sindh IG Fayyaz Leghari has also set up a four-member investigation team under the DIG CIA and asked him to come up with a preliminary report within 24 hours. Forensic experts of Sindh police will assist the investigation team,” a Sindh police spokesman said.

As different investigation teams have yet to initiate their job formally, a group of civil society members held the entire state, including the government, bureaucracy, policymakers, departments, especially those concerning enforcement of labour laws and building codes, responsible for the deaths because they silently and criminally allowed violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.

Officials of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, Pakistan Workers’ Federation and NOW Communities held a news conference at the Karachi Press Club and issued a joint statement.

“The question arises why the factory establishment was allowed to set up three production units on the premises without any safety provisions in the form of fire exits and training of staff on rescue and emergency that was essentially the responsibility of the state through the labour department,” the statement said.

Comments (11) Closed

Sep 14, 2012 07:50am
Dear Faisal, it is no use talking about the efficiency of departments in our country. I remember a fire incident in Peshawar a few years back. The fire brigade didn't reach the spot until a few hours. And it was only AFTER reaching there that they came to know there was NO WATER in their vehicles.
Sep 13, 2012 11:29am
The doors were locked because workers were being paid their weekly wages!
Sep 13, 2012 03:14pm
it is really pathetic for such an horrible event to have occured,self serving politican and the govt,beauracrates carry as much responsibility as the oweners and the operators of this enterprize,this is in our DNA we have least respect for the human dignity and life,the whole eposode would be forgotten in a few days and then business as usual,a very sad day for everybody in Pakistan,but then again there have been sad days in the history of the country,how many of them do we remember or care to remember,like the Americans who faithfully shed tears on 911 this is Pakistan's 911 or very close to it.
Sep 13, 2012 06:10am
This sad incident reflects extreme negligence and incompetence on part of the authorities. it's outrageouslu shameful how human lives are wasted in our country. Dr. farida from Khartoum
Cyrus Howell
Sep 13, 2012 07:46pm
Sep 13, 2012 05:44am
Is anyone looking after Karachi?
Sep 13, 2012 05:53am
May Allah have mercy on our sorry souls and may He forgive our sins as all this blood is on our hands! why are we amazed at the lack of fire safety systems or procedures. life is cheap, as long as it is of the working class or the poor .. we have ample examples of that in Pakistan. Lets wake up, there are thousands of such factories and businesses that have no fire safety equipment or training and when such disasters happen our attention quickly goes back to "normal" and nothing is done. Sorry I forgot, one thing that is done is that a few people will now make some quick money by getting lucrative contracts to "correct" the lapses. This will result in more inspectors making "new" demands on factory owners, who in turn will pay bribes to have these inspectors turn a blind eye and thus "business as usual".
Sep 14, 2012 03:16pm
Inna Lillah Ha wa inna ilaihi raja hoon ....................Allah help them, Give them Peace and tranquility, Ameen
Sep 13, 2012 08:05am
Reminds me of 9/11 when people jumped out of windows from twin towers to save lives, reminds of Malang burn alive in July by religious fanatics, reminds me of children, women and an old man burn alive in Gojra in 2009.
Sep 13, 2012 07:55am
We must find out who locked the doors cauz as per your report the guy Ali in hospital says that doors were normally opened whereas where are the civic agencies who visit factories & does routine check up as Y the fire extingshers & life jackets were not seen also the rescue took 24 hours for g plus 3 building which is also a big question mark on the efficiancy of the department.
Hassaan Asghar
Sep 13, 2012 10:45am
In this country, when we commoners think that we are humans. Ourselves laugh on us with an acknowledgement of a good joke.