KARACHI – A fire that swept through a Karachi garment factory Tuesday night had engulfed at least 289 people as it still raged on Wednesday evening. Officials feared more deaths because more than hundred workers were believed to be trapped in the basement.
The fatal inferno, probably unprecedented in country’s recent history, in Baldia Town’s SITE industrial area coincided with another blaze at a two-storey illegal shoe-factory in Lahore on Tuesday which killed at least 25 people, most of them teenaged workers.
The Karachi towel factory fire erupted Tuesday evening and engulfed all the four storeys and the basement, where most of the people died. The huge death toll was mainly caused by improper and delayed rescue operation as most people died of suffocation due to dense smoke rather than burn injuries.
The building might collapse any time because the fire heavily damaged parts of its steel structure, said Mustafa Jamal, a senior government official in Baldia Town, the area of Karachi where the factory is situated. Jamal said between 400 and 500 people were in the factory as the fire burned. Several trapped workers jumped from upper floors.
Commissioner Karachi Roshan Shaikh told The Nation that 289 bodies had been recovered from the Karachi towel factory but he feared the number of casualties could increase because rescuers were still unable to get inside the basement. He said that that eyewitness accounts suggest that more than 100 people remain stuck inside the building.
Rescuers said they found dozens of dead bodies in every section of the building when they succeeded to penetrate there but in some parts searing heat still prevented their entry. They said most people died because they could not get the exit points and died in search of escape route. They said bodies of some deceased had been burnt beyond recognition.
Rescuers said that lack of administration and decision making was the main reason behind the massive increase in death toll. They said that authorities did not take timely decision to raze factory walls for creating exit for the people. Moreover, had the walls brought down on time, the level of heat and smoke would have declined making it easy to rescue the people stuck inside.
When contacted, Chief Fire Officer Ehtisham Siddique said that despite having limited resources “our fire fighters are still searching every nook and corner of the factory for the potential survivors”. He said that it was the historic fire took more than 24 hours to extinguish despite the contribution of other departments. He said that 80 percent operation has been completed and in the basement of the factory we are still looking for the people trapped in the fire while cooling operation has been continued in the other parts of the factory comprising upon the half acre.
Doctors in Civil Hospital Karachi said that 24 women bodies had been brought to the hospital and handed over to the families after identification. They said that at least 64 victims of the tragedy have been identified while the rest had so for not been identified because they were badly charred. Scores of bodies were shifted to the morgues of different welfare organisations where they would be identified through DNA tests.
Firefighters on crane lifts reached to rescue the trapped people while many of them jumped out in desperation before the arrival of the rescuers. Survivors said that the fire spread in the whole building in no time and people could not escape because the emergency gates were locked and windows were grilled. The said that male workers jumped out from the second floor but women and children could not do so and most of them were burnt alive. Those injured during the jumping were also taken to different hospitals.
Most victims of the factory were the residents of Baldia Town. Their relatives and some survivors gathered around the factory and shouted slogans. They even scuffled with authorities during their protest against the “failed rescue operation”. Charged protesters held responsible the authorities for the debilitating death toll, saying if they had skilled staff and proper equipment, hundreds of precious lives might have been saved.
Expressed grave concern over these unfortunate incidents, President Asif Ali Zardari called for reports on these blazes from the governors of Punjab and Sindh. Spokesperson to the President Farhatullah Babar said that the president expressed deep grief over this loss of lives and directed the authorities to ensure best medical assistance to the injured.
Provincial minister for trade and industries Rauf Siddiqui said that the factory owner was being interrogated. He also directed for an inquiry to find out the cause of fire and non-provision of emergency exits in the factory. Interior Minister Rehman Malik directed IG Sindh to investigate the incident and put the names of factory’s owner Shahid Walha on the Exit Control List (ECL).
Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad, senior minister Baber Ghori, Pir Mazhar and others visited the site and demanded the detailed report of the incident within three days. However, authorities did not announced the compensation to the families of victims while Minister of Industries had announced 0.5 million to each victim family.