KARACHI, Sept 24: A survivor of the Baldia garment factory blaze told an inquiry tribunal on Monday that earlier in the day on Sept 11 a fire had broken out and been extinguished within 10 minutes.
Sharif, a young labourer, was testifying before the tribunal investigating the inferno that killed more than 250 people and wrecked the industrial unit.
Retired Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi, who is heading the probe body set up by the Sindh government, said he was surprised by the disclosure and called more witnesses to corroborate the statement.
The Ali Enterprises employee said that he, his father and three women coworkers escaped the flames though a second floor window of the building.
“Earlier in the day while we were busy working at 11am we heard that a fire had broken out on the ground floor of the factory that was put out in 10 minutes,” said Sharif insisting that the blaze that engulfed the industrial unit in the evening was not the first fire incident that fateful day.
“Did you see the 11am fire?” asked the tribunal and Sharif said he only heard about that. However, he said the talk about the forenoon fire was so common among his colleagues well before the evening fire that he was convinced that it did occur.
“Just after sunset the power supply went off and we heard two back-to-back blasts. Within the next few seconds the entire second floor was filled with smoke. People started crying and falling unconscious. I with my father, both working on the second floor, somehow found a window that was open,” he said.
Sharif said he remembered that he and his father rescued three women workers before they climbed down the window by a wooden ladder placed there by some people outside the building.
“And from then on I didn’t know anything as I fell unconscious the moment I came out of the building. On the second floor before coming out of the window, I saw my colleagues and friends lying unconscious. I believe that they could not get up and the fire burnt them to death,” said Sharif, who was still in a state of trauma.
Justice Alvi took serious note of Sharif’s statement and called more survivors of the Baldia Town factory. He directed a representative of the labour department, Rehana Yasmin, to bring along more such workers on Tuesday.
“That’s really surprising and interesting,” remarked Justice Alvi. “If that (fire incident at 11am) really occurred, we need to ascertain that what kind of a fire that was and what was done to handle the situation at that time. To establish such occurrence, we need to examine more witnesses.”
Factory owners in the dock
Two sons of Ali Enterprises owner Abdul Aziz Bhaila – Shahid Bhaila and Arshad Bhaila – and co-accused in the case with their father appeared before the tribunal.
During their testimonies they mainly criticised the firefighting and rescue operation that they said began at least one and a half hours after the fire had engulfed the factory.
“I kept calling people I knew in the industry and the civil administration for help to save my people, my factory, but in vain,” said Shahid Bhaila, the elder brother. “I was there till 12 midnight when I was advised to leave the place as family members of the workers had started converging outside the factory and a law and order problem might arise.”
He said the doors were not locked and all equipment, including the boiler, generator as well as fire extinguishers, were functioning. His claim matched the account of labourer Sharif’s statement, who also said that the doors were not locked but it was darkness and thick smoke that trapped the labourers inside.
When Justice Alvi asked him to ‘speculate’ on the cause of the fire, Mr Bhaila broke down in tears and said he did not know that as he had not been allowed to visit the factory after the incident.
“I lost my people. I lost my business and everything. My bank accounts have been frozen. I couldn’t attend a single funeral prayer of the hundreds of my workers, who were more than brothers and sisters to me,” he said. “I begged everyone to save my factory and my people. I bowed before the firefighters, but they refused to enter the affected area and kept operating from outside.”
He said Ali Enterprises met all formalities and local and international industrial standards, producing copies of the certificates awarded by the internationally-recognised certification bodies. However, Mr Bhaila replied with ‘not to my knowledge’ to several questions asked by the tribunal about his business.
For instance, he was not exactly aware of the nature of the chemicals used by Ali Enterprises for different denim processes. “It’s not to my knowledge,” said Mr Bhaila, a mechanical engineer by qualification, when asked about the vulnerability to fire of the chemicals used by his production unit.
During the proceedings, counsel for the Bhaila family Amir Mansoob Qureshi and Qazi Ashraf asked for copies of the witnesses’ statements recorded by the tribunal, which were given to him.
They also sought the tribunal’s assistance for proper security of their clients and a visit to the factory sealed by the police. The tribunal accepted the request and assured them of necessary action, including allowing the owners to visit the factory.
The tribunal repeatedly demanded to know the whereabouts of Mansoor, the factory manager and a key name that kept arising in different people’s accounts during the proceedings. However, counsel Qureshi said a number of Ali Enterprises employees were in police custody and he feared that they might be forced to twist facts.