KARACHI: The fire that broke out in a Karachi industrial unit on Tuesday evening died down on Wednesday night but only after killing at least 258 people, including dozens of women and a number of members of same families.
The deadliest incident in the country’s industrial history raised many questions about safety standards and authorities’ role in treating labourers.
Dozens of workers escaped death by jumping from windows of the multi-storey factory building in one of the country’s largest industrial estates, Site, in densely-populated Baldia Town, before rescue organisations responded to their call for help.
Nearly 100 rescue personnel, including firefighters, battled for more than 24 hours only to retrieve the charred bodies from three floors and basement of the factory — Ali Enterprises — producing garments for export. “The cause of fire is not yet known,” said Salim Ehtasham, chief of the Karachi fire department. “We are focused on firefighting, finding if anyone alive inside and retrieving the bodies. Most of the people were found dead in the basement and on the first floor of the building. Bodies are charred beyond recognition and in some cases one can’t identify a victim’s gender.”
A senior official said the fire started from the basement and travelled to three other floors of the building. He said there were several emergency exits inside the building but all of them were locked permanently.
The pace of retrieving the bodies got momentum in the middle of the night when rescue workers finally broke down one of exterior walls of the building to get access to the first and second floors. Recovery of the bodies one after another outnumbered the ambulances parked outside the building on Hub River Road.
Dozens of fire tenders took part in the rescue operation. DSNG (digital satellite news gathering) vans of a number of news channels rushed to the site for live coverage of the horrific incident.
As charity organisations, Edhi and Chhipa, increased the number of ambulances by calling vehicles from other areas of the city, mortuaries in hospitals went out of space to accommodate the bodies.
After watching the incident on TV channels, family members of factory workers started converging outside the building in a desperate attempt to know about the fate of their loved ones. Hardly anyone among them got any good news and most of them returned home by Wednesday afternoon after their fears had turned into reality.
After a ‘no more space’ call from the managements of Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, Civil Hospital Karachi and Abbasi Shaheed Hospital, the bodies were moved to the Edhi morgue in Sohrab Goth. “Right now I can confirm that 258 people died in the tragedy,” Commissioner Karachi Roshan Ali Sheikh said. “Among them 173 victims have been identified and their bodies have been handed over to their families. We are also carrying out DNA matching of the unidentified bodies and hope to complete the process in the next few hours. I don’t think the number of the bodies will increase to a large extent from here,” he added.
The survivors being treated in hospitals narrated their nightmarish experience but were unclear about the exact cause of the deadliest blaze.
Shehzad Ali, 47, who jumped out of an iron-grilled window to save his life but got his pelvis and an arm fractured, said there were more than 500 people, including 50 women, inside the factory when the fire engulfed the building.
“How the gates got closed on that day when they always remain open,” wondered Ali, who was under observation at the surgical ward of Civil Hospital, believing that the incident was somewhat like a conspiracy.
But the authorities described the tragedy as an accident and ordered multiple inquiries.
“A judicial inquiry has already been ordered,” Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad told reporters during a visit to the factory, referring to the announcement made by Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah who appointed Justice (retd) Zahid Qurban Alvi as inquiry officer. The CM also announced Rs300,000 compensation for families of each of those killed in the incident.
“The orders have also been issued for action against those officials whose negligence led to the tragedy. I assure you no-one will be spared. It’s a national tragedy and the entire nation is in a state of trauma,” he said.
Hours after the chief minister’s announcement, the Site-B police station of Baldia Town registered an FIR (343/2012) against factory owners – Shahid Bhaila, Rashid Bhaila and Ali Bhaila – under Sections 302 (premeditated murder), 324 (attempt to murder) and 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code on behalf of the state.
“Sindh IG Fayyaz Leghari has also set up a four-member investigation team under the DIG CIA and asked him to come up with a preliminary report within 24 hours. Forensic experts of Sindh police will assist the investigation team,” a Sindh police spokesman said.
As different investigation teams have yet to initiate their job formally, a group of civil society members held the entire state, including the government, bureaucracy, policymakers, departments, especially those concerning enforcement of labour laws and building codes, responsible for the deaths because they silently and criminally allowed violation of laws and regulations established to ensure health and safety provisions at work.
Officials of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, Pakistan Workers’ Federation and NOW Communities held a news conference at the Karachi Press Club and issued a joint statement.
“The question arises why the factory establishment was allowed to set up three production units on the premises without any safety provisions in the form of fire exits and training of staff on rescue and emergency that was essentially the responsibility of the state through the labour department,” the statement said.