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Women grieve and wait outside a building for their relatives after a fire at a garment factory in Karachi, Sept 12, 2012. — Photo by Reuters

KARACHI, Sept 20: The findings of a key police investigator during the course of a probe into the blaze that wrecked a garments factory in Baldia Town last week and killed more than 250 people made the entire episode of the deadliest such incident suspicious on Thursday, raising questions about the exact cause of the fire and the management’s efforts to evacuate people from the two floors of the building before the flames had engulfed the industrial unit.

Terming the testimony as the ‘only truth’ that had come out during the four-day proceedings, tribunal chief retired Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi appreciated the ‘daring efforts’ of Inspector Chaudhary Zafar Iqbal, the investigation officer associated with the SITE-B police station, and told him to keep the probe body abreast of his findings.

Inspector Iqbal briefed the tribunal on the situation inside the factory an hour before and after the fire erupted through findings of statements he recorded during the past one week. People who recorded their statements included the owners of Ali Enterprises and factory workers and families of labourers killed in the fire to people living near the industrial unit.

His statement raised several new questions and put serious doubt over the role of a few staff members as well as people associated with the company one way or another but still the investigator did not say anything that could determine the cause of the fire.

“One of the senior management officers walked down the stairs to the ground floor from the second floor of the building just 15-20 minutes before the fire had engulfed the building,” he said. “It’s is beyond my comprehension as to how it was not possible for any of the more than 250 people to come down to the ground floor the same way? Why were they not informed of the fire and they could not use the same stairs?”

Justice Alvi interrupted him to ask if it was an indication that the doors were locked from outside.

“The statements we have recorded under Section 164 of the criminal procedure code suggest so,” he said. The observation of the investigation officer also echoed in the statement of Ali Enterprises’ accountant Abdul Majeed Khan, who did not rule out the possibility.

“You have been associated with the company for more than 18 years, so have you ever observed that the management locked the doors from outside for any reason?” asked Justice Alvi.

“Yes, I have heard about it. The doors are locked to keep workers from leaving their places before time or to prevent theft of material or equipment,” said Mr Khan.

Earlier, investigation officer Inspector Iqbal named a number of staff members of Ali Enterprises who were detained and questioned by the police that led them to suspect the roles of some persons before and after the fire.

He also named at least two of the persons, who were still missing and being searched for.

At one point he requested the media not to disclose those names to help maintain secrecy and brushed aside reports of extortion threats to the Ali Enterprises saying the owners ‘enjoyed good relations’ with such elements and were ‘well in touch with those groups’.

“The factory outsourced up to Rs25,000 worth waste business daily, which was availed of by some influential people of the area. They were not direct employees of the company, but enjoyed good relations with the owners and moved about in Ali Enterprises freely,” said Inspector Iqbal.“It also surprises me that the fire was first spotted in the cloth rolls dumped in the warehouse on the ground floor, but the statements of witnesses suggest that the people who came to the fire site first made a hue and cry instead of trying to douse it.”

The tribunal asked Inspector Iqbal to bring along the footage of closed-circuit television cameras on Saturday and share more details of his findings with it.

Before the statement of the investigation officer, the tribunal was told that the forensic division of the Sindh police had no expertise in investigating fire incidents, dashing hopes of determining the cause of the fire.

Forensic officers Inspector Muhammad Bashir and Sub-Inspector Qalandar Bakhsh only came up with a list of samples they had collected from the gutted factory and gave them to the investigation officer that infuriated the tribunal.

“We only have expertise of four different forensic examinations that include firearms, handwriting and chassis examination,” said Inspector Bashir. “In such cases we only collect evidence and hand it over to the relevant investigation officer. In this case as well, we collected pieces of wires, glasses and swabs and handed them over to the IO for further examination.”

With no input from the police’s forensic division, the tribunal was left with only one source to determine the cause of the fire that was now being ascertained by the insurers of the company to settle the amount of claims.

Justice Alvi directed SSP-West Amir Farooqi to facilitate a detailed visit of the insurance company’s surveyors so they could collect data and evidence to determine the cause of the fire.

“I have talked to the senior management of the insurance company concerned, which says that determining the cause of the fire is mandatory in such cases and they will do that on their own. They could also call experts from abroad if needed,” added Justice Alvi.

During the statement of a senior Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution officer, the tribunal came to know about a large-scale violation of industrial labour rights in general and in the case of Ali Enterprises in particular. The details of these abuses ranged from a contract system to child labour and underpaid workforce to safety hazards that unfolded before the tribunal.

“We have a record of 200 people employed with Ali Enterprises, whose monthly contribution was made by the company for pension and post-retirement benefits,” said Saeed Ahmed Jumani, the regional director of the EOBI. His record did not match the data compiled by the police investigators and submitted to the tribunal which said that only on Sept 11 when the fire broke out 1,293 people had come to work.

“We were very much doubtful about the labour strength on record of Ali Enterprises and that’s why we sent them letters as reminders asking them to update that number, but in vain. The employers in fact never allowed us to visit the factory and ascertain the number of employees,” he said.

However, his plea failed to convince the additional secretary for home, Khalil-ur-Rahman Sheikh, assisting the tribunal, who asked why despite serious disobedience by Ali Enterprises the EOBI did not take action against it.

“You were authorised to seize their record, books and do whatever you thought was right in line with the defined rules, but you only relied on sending reminders and letters. This is so unfortunate and against interests of the workers,” he added.

The tribunal directed the EOBI to help families of the factory fire victims regardless of their nature of association with Ali Enterprises so they could get a monthly amount of money.

“Whether they were employed on contract or were directly associated with the company, the EOBI must pay pension to all victims families and make it public through the media and other sources so those families approach you to fulfil the formalities,” said Justice Alvi.

During its Thursday proceedings, the tribunal also sought the assistance of a textile chemical professional, who helped the probe body explore the possibilities of a fire.

Tajammul Hussain, associated with a private company as its senior marketer of textile chemical, said a denim manufacturing unit at a time handled at least three chemicals, which were considered highly ‘explosive and inflammable’.

“Among these, there is a common use of hydrogen peroxide which needed to be handled with care and, unfortunately, there are only a few industrial units that properly train their workers and make arrangements to store these chemicals,” he said.

“Similarly, potassium permanganate is also used in factories involved in denim products. Dryer is another vulnerable area in such industrial units where a leakage of gas could cause sparks and a consequent fire. Polythene bags which are used for packaging of finished goods are also a source of fire, thick smoke and suffocation.”

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