LAHORE: A massive fire in a multi-storey Pace Mall at Gulberg early on Monday gutted hundreds of shops, leaving emotional scenes when the traders were helplessly seeing their merchandize reducing to ashes.
The disturbing part of the tragic incident was that dozens of fire-extinguishing units and trained crew of Rescue 1122 and the Civil Defence were unable to secure any portion of the plaza.
A Rescue 1122 spokesman said some 20 vehicles and 60 personnel took part in the operation. Almost all  shops, several counters and offices were reduced to ashes in the blaze that started late on Sunday and continued till 11:45am on Monday.
The district government declared it a grade “A” fire.
Shopkeepers suspect that something is amiss
The reports feared that many major cracks appeared in the roof and walls of the plaza, prompting the district authorities to seal it for further use.Talking about the incident, some witnesses said, the fire spread so steadily that it engulfed the entire floors of the plaza which was largely housing garments shops.
A rescuer said Rescue 1122 received call from a passerby at around 12:30am about the fire.
A unit of the Rescue 1122 was dispatched to respond to the emergency but it sought back-up support due to intensity of the fire.
A shopkeeper, Sajid Ali, said he was about to leave his shop at the first floor when suddenly he saw dense smoke billowing from the building followed by flames.
He said the union leaders and other traders also gathered and called the management for help but no one responded.
The union office staff alleged that the owners of the plaza had a dispute with shopkeepers for the last two years or so.
Union President Irfan Latif, Secretary General Mirza Amir Baig and other members filed a complaint with the Gulberg police.
They nominated in the application former Punjab governor late Salman Taseer’s family members, including his wife Amina Taseer, her sons Shahbaz Taseer and Sheharyar Taseer, general manager Zulfiqar Bhatti and manager Ahmad Soroya, asking the police to lodge a first information report against them.
The union leaders alleged that the owners wanted to get the shops vacated as they had a plan to sell the shopping mall to a party. They accused the owners of setting the building ablaze.
The Lahore SSP Operations confirmed to Dawn the police received an application carrying names of the former governor’s family members, saying that the Model Town Division SP was holding negotiations with the union leaders to remove their names from the complaint.
He said a joint investigation by the police, Rescue 1122 and the civil defence officials had been launched after the union leaders rejected the reports that the fire was caused by short-circuiting.
Talking to this reporter, a union leader claimed that nearly 60 per cent of the mall was owned by the family of the late Punjab governor and the rest by shopkeepers. He claimed that the Taseer family was collecting Rs18 million every month under the head of ‘services charges’ for maintenance of the plaza.
The maintenance included provision of fire hydrants, other safety gadgets and security services.
He alleged that the fire equipment was not functioning at the time when the blaze erupted.
He also blamed the Rescue 1122 for the delayed operation saying the first unit dispatched to the shopping mall was sent back to the station to refill water.
“I had recently invested Rs5m in my garments shop and shifted it from the 4th floor to the first some weeks back and purchased [summer] stock that was gutted by fire in my presence,” a teary-eyed shopkeeper told Dawn. It was the second major fire incident reported in the Pace located near Liberty Roundabout.
Earlier, a blaze had erupted during the Musharraf regime in 2002 when [Prime Minister] Imran Khan was owner of the mall.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2022