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Survivors narrate nightmarish experience

September 12, 2012

karachi-factory-fire-AFP-670
A relative of a garment factory worker argues with rescuers outside the factory in Karachi on Sept 12, 2012. — Photo by AFP

KARACHI, Sept 12: “The electricity went off with a sound of a blast, followed by four to five more explosions that filled the entire floor with poisonous gas. There was total chaos as people ran for safety but found no way to escape, because the main entrance and the gate on the second floor were closed,” says Shehzad Ali while narrating how he survived the devastating fire at the garment factory in Baldia.

“How the gates got closed on that day when they always remain open,” wonders 47-year-old Ali, who is currently under observation at surgical ward-II of the Civil Hospital Karachi, believing that the incident is somewhat like a conspiracy.

According to the survivors’ accounts, more than 500 people, including 50 women, were present inside the factory when the fire engulfed the building on Tuesday evening at around 6.30pm, half an hour before its closing time. Luckily, half of the over 1,000 factory employees had already left the premises by that time, some survivors at the hospital tell Dawn.

By Wednesday evening, the CHK has received 80 bodies and 35 injured.

Of the survivors, two victims with multiple fractures have been admitted to the main hospital, whereas another two are being treated at the burns centre.

Mr Ali, a daily wage earner at the factory, claims he was the first among the 15 to 20 people who jumped out of an iron-grilled window that they broke with the help of heavy sewing machines. Ali fell into a drain and received fractures on his pelvis and an arm.

“I’m thankful to God for saving my life but what about others and a pregnant woman who I left there,” he laments.

Unaware of the fate that was to befall them, all the workers were very happy as they had got their salaries. “We were sharing with each other how we are going to spend the money. My friend told me that he was to buy the monthly ration, while another said he had to pay school fee of his children,” he moans.

His wife, Gulshan, says her husband had started working at the factory last month after leaving a job due to his asthma. The couple lives in Musharraf Colony with their five children.

Mohammad Asif, 20, under treatment at the burns centre, is the only survivor out of the 200 people who were working on the factory’s third floor. He was fortunate that he didn’t get any fractures.

“The rescue staff made a hole in the window for us to come out. A rope was thrown towards me but I couldn’t make use of it and I jumped through the window in a desperate attempt to save my life since it was too much hot inside. I got my face and arms burnt when my body just touched the extremely hot window grilles, besides my foot also swelled,” he explains.

Mr Asif has seven siblings and lives in New Karachi. He worked as a helper at Ayesha Manzil before joining the factory seven months ago.

Man who lost seven family members

Also under treatment at the burns centre was Liaquat Hussain, 29, who lost seven family members, including his brother and uncle, in the fire.

He suffered burn wounds on his face, back and arms when he raced through the flames to save his life. He was a senior factory employee working as a production supervisor.

He says he helped 60 to 70 people pass through the gate on the back before it was all in flames that badly injured him. “I attempted to save my life when I realised that there was no chance to save colleagues, as all of them were lying unconscious on the floor.”

People were unable to see as there was no electricity and the entire place was filled with smoke, he adds.

More than 50 people of his village, he says, were working at the factory that he joined 14 years ago.

“I have no clue if they are alive. It was me who motivated them to come to work at the factory since they were all farmers and had plenty of free time once crops are sown. Poor conditions in the Punjab forced us to find work here,” he says.

Mr Hussain married with a son lives in a rented house in Mohajir Camp, Baldia Town. He appeals to the government to help victim families in transporting the bodies of their loved ones to their hometowns and giving them adequate financial support.

Strange it may seem but he spoke well of the two brothers, Shahid and Arshad, who run the factory and says they have always helped workers in their time of need.

Exits

The factory has front and back exits and had also installed oxygen cylinders. “It all happened within a span of a few minutes and the situation got aggravated because of pitch darkness and smoke.”

Resting at the hospital’s orthopedic ward with a fractured leg, Mohammad Rashid, however, says that only the second floor had two exits but both were in flames.

“We saw some light from the window and then ran towards it to break it open. I along with many people got down with the help of a rope,” he recalls.

He says he has no idea what happened to the many people present in the factory’s godown and on the third floor at that time.

The survivors share with Dawn different opinions about cause of the fire. While some believe it to be the result of a short circuit, others find a boiler explosion as its cause. However, they all agree that some four to six months ago, a fire was caused at the factory and at that time no blast was heard.

Fifteen-year-old Mohammad Mehrab is also at the burns centre, but not as a fire victim. He looks for his missing sister and brother-in-law, both worked at the factory.

Holding a picture in his hand, he says: “This is my sister, Rashida, and brother-in-law, Mohammad Nasir. I have been shuttling from one hospital to another for the past many hours to get a clue to their whereabouts but there was no help available,” he says.

The couple had come to Karachi from Bhawalpur a few years ago. “I have informed my parents back in the village but it will take them five to six days to come here because of bad weather conditions.”

About the situation at the Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, medical superintendent Dr Nadeem Rajput says 97 bodies have been brought to the hospital so far.

“Out of the nine injured, two have been hospitalised. One is getting treatment for burn injuries while the other is in the intensive care unit. Thirty-five bodies have been identified, while process is under way to identify the rest,” he said.

71 bodies at JPMC

At the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, 71 bodies have been brought here so far, says joint executive director of the hospital Dr Seemin Jamali while speaking to Dawn on Wednesday evening.

“There wasn’t a single case of injuries. Most bodies are completely burnt. The bodies of 28 men and four women have been identified, while other four women victims remain unidentified, she says.

Samples have been drawn from 19 bodies for the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) test that may help identify them, she adds.