‘Lives could have been saved if fire tenders had arrived on time’

Published August 29, 2021
Saleem displays a picture of his brother Sabir, who died in the factory fire, on his mobile phone.—White Star
Saleem displays a picture of his brother Sabir, who died in the factory fire, on his mobile phone.—White Star

KARACHI: The many years of labour, washing people’s dirty clothes at the Dhobi Ghat (laundry) of Lyari didn’t cause Mohammed Ahsan’s back to hunch as much as the passing of his three young sons has done in just one day.

“I feel like my heart would explode into a million pieces. I pray no father ever has to bury his three boys the same day,” Mr Ahsan, the father of Irfan (37), Farman (33) and Farhan (30) who perished in Friday’s Mehran Town factory fire, told Dawn on Saturday.

“I am a common dhobi [washerman]. I brought up my five sons and three daughters with great difficulty. We are poor people. I couldn’t even send my children to school. But then as my boys grew older they realised that they could help supplement the family income by finding work themselves. It was a proud moment for me when my third son, Farman, at the age of just 14 found work in a garment factory. And then gathering strength from him his brothers, too, followed in his footsteps,” said the grieving father, holding his late sons’ CNICs.

“They have families of their own now and I am old. I don’t know how we are going to manage now that my able supports are gone,” he added as Afzaal, one of his two sons who narrowly escaped death himself in the incident, tried to console him.

Elderly Ahsan mourns the loss of his three sons who perished in Mehran Town factory fire

Afzaal said he also worked in the same factory as his three brothers. “I escaped the fire only because I had gone downstairs to fetch our tea order,” he said.

“It was 9.45am, I had just paid for the tea when I heard screaming from upstairs. They were crying for help. I dropped everything to rush back upstairs, but I couldn’t go. There was a fire which had spread within seconds. It had engulfed the stairs. People upstairs couldn’t come down and people downstairs couldn’t go upstairs to rescue the others,” he said.

Ahsan holds up the CNICs of his three sons who perished in the tragedy and (right) Afzaal, a survivor of the blaze, wipes off tears from his eyes on Saturday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Ahsan holds up the CNICs of his three sons who perished in the tragedy and (right) Afzaal, a survivor of the blaze, wipes off tears from his eyes on Saturday.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

“I reached for a fire extinguisher and tried putting out the fire but my attempts were futile. The blaze had become too big too soon,” he said, while explaining that what the media had reported initially was “not true” as the factory was well-equipped with safety gadgets and fire extinguishers.

‘Fire tenders came two hours late’

“Yes, there were grills in the windows and the people upstairs could not jump out the windows because of the grills. But they were regular window grills to keep thieves out, and not to keep the workers locked in. We get plenty of those in Korangi, where the building is located,” Afzaal said.

“What really caused damage of life and property was the late arrival of the fire tenders. They came two hours late,” he complained. “At first I called the fire station near Brooks Chowrangi but they said they didn’t have water. Then we called another emergency number. Finally, when one tender was coming it couldn’t find its way to the factory and I had to go to Bilal Chowrangi myself to climb in it and guide it to the factory,” he said.

“But it was too late. We had lost everything by then. My three brothers, my colleagues ...” he went quiet then for a little while.

“You know, we have been working in this factory for many years. We joined it in 2013 when B.M. Industries was Dubai-based. It is a luggage manufacturing company and we were trained by Chinese experts in Dubai. Then later the company moved here to Karachi as they found manufacturing and labour affordable here. They also continued with us, their old and loyal employees.

“I must add here because it is important to mention,” said Afzaal. “The factory owners have been good to us. They have always treated us like friends, not slaves. We are not blaming them for what happened because this was a very unfortunate accident. No one caused the short circuit. But yes, lives could have been saved had the fire tenders arrived on time. The first responders were Edhi and Chhipa, who put their own lives in danger as there were no fire trucks to extinguish the blaze,” Afzaal said.

‘My brothers were more like my friends’

“For us, everything was destroyed within those initial two hours. I don’t know what to say to my aging mother who wants to know why I came home without my brothers. My brothers were more like my friends. Working in the same place with them was great. I don’t know how I can return to the same place without them. I don’t even know how to support my brothers’ widows and children. Irfan and Farman have four children and Farhan has three. My father still works as a washerman. I never stopped working but he is also old now. And we have to live with this pain. I will never forget my brothers,” Afzaal broke down.

The three deaths weren’t all. The family also lost two cousins in the same terrible tragedy. Mohammad Saleem, one of their older cousins was also there mourning the passing of his younger brother, Mohammed Sabir. “He was my youngest brother. Younger to me by some 20 years,” said Saleem with a lump in his throat. He kept looking at his brother’s picture in his mobile phone while weeping silent tears.

The family said that they are being paid several visits by various politicians for which they are grateful.

Afzaal said that Chief Minister’s Adviser and Karachi Administrator Barrister Murtaza Wahab has promised the families of the deceased Rs1 million as compensation along with food rations and free education for their orphaned children.

“We don’t even own the roof over our heads and he has also promised us housing. We are truly grateful for the kind gesture,” he said.

Meanwhile, sharing his views about the sad incident, Nasir Mansoor, general secretary of the National Trade Union Federation Pakistan, said that it reminded him of the Baldia factory fire of 2012 in which 259 workers perished due to bad working conditions.

“We demand compensation from the owners as well as the government,” he told Dawn. “We also want a judicial inquiry into the cause of the fire,” he added.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2021

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