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Short circuit behind Baldia inferno ruled out

September 19, 2012

KARACHI, Sept 18: The cause of the fire that wrecked a garment factory in Baldia Town last week and killed more than 250 people became more suspicious on Tuesday when electrical engineers testifying before a Sindh government-established inquiry tribunal dismissed the firefighters’ assessment that an electric short circuit had ignited the blaze.

None of the relevant institutions had compiled their final reports that could help the probe body ascertain the cause of the fire.

They, however, agreed to do so when tribunal chief retired Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi sought final reports of the fire and Sindh electric and energy departments on Wednesday.

When asked by the tribunal to “speculate” the apparent cause of the fire in the light of his “decades-old firefighting experience”, chief fire officer Ehtashamuddin confidently said “electric short circuit” as the cause of the inferno that took over 50 firefighters more than 24 hours to douse.

However, his confident assessment turned shaky in the next few seconds when he was asked questions about his findings and the final report of his department. The chief fire officer sought time to pay a detailed visit to the haunted industrial unit with electric inspectors to finalise his assessment and report.

“The fire travelled vertically,” he told the tribunal assisted by additional home secretary Khalil-ur-Rahman Sheikh. “The building has only one exit and entrance and we found no emergency exit in its architectural design. The firefighters mainly used water to put out the fire in the operation.”

At this point Justice Alvi intervened and shared his own experience of visiting the Ali Enterprises a couple of times after the incident. He said he wondered why the fire badly damaged the basement, ground floor and second floor but the first floor of the factory remained unaffected.

“My assessment and study suggest that denim factories use chemical also for their finished products. So, did you find any such possibility inside?” asked Justice Alvi from the chief fire officer.

“Yes. We found ample evidence that helped us determine that there were sodium nitrate and caustic soda inside the factory, which are toxic and highly flammable,” said Etashamuddin in his reply, rejecting the claim made by the Ali Enterprises’ owners in their statement before police investigators last week.

It came as a surprise to probe body officials that the city firefighters could not access any place more than 100 metres high amid a growing number of high-rise buildings in the city.

The tribunal chief said “it could be a disastrous situation” if immediate measures were not taken.

“The city should have at least 50 snorkels, but we have only one,” said the chief fire officer when asked about the details of the department’s strength, capacity, resources and weaknesses.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any say in suggesting fire exit or emergency plans as buildings maps are approved by the building control authority.”

Justice Alvi said the fire department should be an independent body and also sought detailed proposals from the chief fire officer on how to enhance the performance of firefighters and build capacity of the department so that he could recommend those to the authorities concerned in his final report.

In their testimony, officials of the Sindh electric and energy department, responsible for electrical safety in commercial units under the Electrical Act 1910 and Electrical Rules 1937, failed to produce any proof to satisfy the tribunal about their claims.

Electric inspector Amjad Mahesar argued that in 2003 an annual inspection of the industrial units was suspended under government directives following a Sindh cabinet decision. He claimed that the number of fatal fire incidents increased manifold after the suspension of the annual electrical inspection. He, however, could not prove the department’s performance before the 2003 suspension of the inspection.

He had no document showing a history of Ali Enterprises electrical safety measures, compelling the tribunal to give him till Wednesday to furnish such record.

When asked about his visit to the factory after the incident, he said a team of the Sindh electric and energy department examined the site which did not suggest any short circuit as a cause of the fire.

“All wirings and electric installations were intact,” said Mr Mahesar. “But we did not have any access to go inside the building; so we examined the exterior of the building and the installation outside the factory. A detailed visit of the building and affected parts of the factory would help determine the exact cause of the fire.”

The tribunal chief issued directives to the police authorities to facilitate the visit of the fire and electric departments’ officials to enable them to prepare a final report and submit it to the probe body on Wednesday.