KARACHI, Aug 19: A fire raged through the 15-storey Pakistan National Shipping Corporation building on Sunday, leaving at least two firefighters injured and destroying a large number of valuable documents.
The PNSC building, which was built in the early 1970s, has seen the second outbreak of a fire in seven months. The Feb 18 fire — believed to have been caused by a short circuit — destroyed official records of the National Engineering Services of Pakistan.
The PNSC manages a fleet of 14 ships.
Although no deaths were reported in Sunday’s blaze, the PNSC building administration manager, Vijay Kumar Khatri, suffered a massive heart attack as he helped the firefighters. He later died at a hospital.
A spokesman for the Pakistan Navy, Commander Salman Ali, told Dawn that engineer Adeel Ansari, working on a communication tower on the rooftop, was airlifted to safety by a Sea King helicopter.
The chairman of the Karachi Port Trust, Vice Admiral Ahmad Hayat, said the blaze started on the fourth floor at around 2.15pm and swept to the tenth floor.
Pointing to the flames and thick black smoke billowing out of the building, he said foul play could not be discounted because the February fire outbreak had also occurred on a Sunday.
He said a survey by the Karachi Building Control Authority would determine whether the building could be used again.
The Minister for Ports and Shipping, Babar Ghauri, said an inquiry would be instituted to determine the cause of Sunday’s blaze.
He told a private television channel that President Gen Pervez Musharraf telephoned him to find out the latest of the PNSC fire.
More than 100 firefighters, belonging to various civic agencies, sought to extinguish the fire. The newly acquired snorkels were pressed into service and firefighters hosed the upper storeys of the burning building from three sides.
At least 21 fire engines of the city government and nine fire engines of the KPT, Pakistan Navy, Port Qasim Authority, Clifton Cantonment Board and Defence Housing Authority took part in the operation.
The city government’s chief fire officer, Ehtashamuddin, told Dawn that his team was assisting the Karachi Port Trust because the area in which the PNSC building stood did not fall in their jurisdiction.
He blamed gusty winds, giant-sized power generators and a raised platform around the building for the slow pace of the firefighting operation. He pointed out that the staircase in the building was so narrow that hardly two people could walk at a time.
The chief fire officer’s views were corroborated by auditor Sattar Rauf who, with a couple of colleagues, worked on the fifth floor unaware of the fact that the building had been on fire.
“It was only when smoke poured out from the ventilation duct that I called the building staff only to be told that a fire was raging in the building and I must leave it immediately. The building staff should have called people inside the building and inform them about the fire. In any case, we ran for safety and realised that the staircase was so narrow that had it been a working day, a large number of people would have lost their lives in a stampede,” he said.
He added that if the fire brigade had come on time – and if the fire had not looked deceptively small in the beginning – it could have been easily extinguished.
Karachi Nazim Mustafa Kamal told Dawn that Karachi Port Trust fire engines had sought to put out the fire initially. “But they called for help when they realised the gravity of the situation. We have pooled our resources to fight what is definitely a huge blaze,” he said.