LAHORE: Twenty-one people burned to death and 14 others suffered multiple injuries after a fire broke out in a shoe-manufacturing unit in Shafeeqabad, on Bund Road, here on Tuesday.
The fire, which erupted at around 3:30pm during power outage, also burnt a huge quantity of shoe manufacturing material and plastic shoes, witnesses and rescuers said.
Most of the dead, between 14 and 30 years of age, were labourers from different parts of Punjab who were trapped inside the 10-marla factory because there was only one entry-exit point.
Huge flames triggered panic in the locality.
Presence of people in large numbers on the busy road hampered fire-fighting and rescue activities. Most of them either gathered outside the double-storey factory or rooftops of nearby buildings.
Traffic flow from Motorway II to Saggian bridge remained suspended for a few hours because of the presence of fire-fighting vehicles, ambulances, vehicles of TV channels and onlookers.
Emotional scenes were witnessed at hospitals as wailing men and women searched for their loved ones in the hope of finding them alive.
Rescue 1122 District Officer Dr Ahmad Raza told Dawn that as many as 21 labourers were killed and 14 others injured in the fire.
He said short-circuiting in a portion of the building sparked fire and unconfirmed reports linked the blaze to a power generator.
Mr Raza said the blaze spread quickly because of the presence of an organic substance which was stored in a huge quantity without safety measures.
He said a majority of casualties took place because of smoke annihilation and absence of an emergency exit.
The official said fire-fighters battled for about four hours to put out the flames.
Ambulances of Rescue 1122, Edhi Foundation and other private organisations took the dead and injured to Mayo and Mian Munshi hospitals.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has constituted a committee, headed by the chairman of the Chief Minister’s Inspection Team, to investigate the incident.
Deputy Inspector General of Police (Operations) Rai Mohammad Tahir said an initial report released by the doctors suggested that a majority of people died of burns and suffocation. He said factory owner Rajab Ali, who also died in the fire, had a force of around 35 labourers and the business was at its peak at the time of the fire.
He said the fire apparently erupted following sparks in a generator and spread quickly because of combustible material like plastic glue and other chemicals. He said the victims were evacuated by breaking front and back portions of the building.
The DIG said police would wait for an inquiry report before any legal action because the factory owner also lost his life in the incident.
He said faces of all burnt victims were recognisable and bodies were handed over to families.
Most of the dead belonged to districts of Narowal and Okara. One of the injured, who identified himself as Sohail at the hospital, said he tried to save his relative, suffered light burns and ran towards the exit. He said the fire engulfed other people in no time.
“I came out of my house and saw sparks in main electricity wires outside the factory and huge flames inside the building. The blaze was so intense that the locals had no option but to call emergency services,” Syed Shafeeq Shah, who owns an adjacent house and is an accountant by profession, said.
He said rescue services arrived within 20 minutes.
Shah told Dawn that Rajab Ali had acquired the affected building on rent about one and half years ago. A variety of shoes were made at the factory.
He said up to 150 labourers worked in the factory in shifts and approximately 30 of them were present in the building when the fire erupted.
Shah said local youths smashed the back wall of the factory and pulled out around 20 victims.
“Locals and rescuers found it difficult to evacuate the victims because of a narrow exit.”