The owner of the factory, where a horrific blaze killed over 250 people, has told the inquiry tribunal probing the incident that the gates of the industrial unit were not closed after the fire broke out.
“The fire tenders reached the spot very late,” Shahid Bhaila, owner of the ill-fated Ali Enterprises, told Justice (Retd) Zahid Qurban Alvi, the head of the tribunal, on Monday.“The factory was certified by an international body. Without this certification, I couldn’t have exported my goods.”
Bhaila was accompanied by his brother, Arshad, and lawyers, Qazi Ashraf and Amir Mansoob Qureshi.Narrating the events of the day when disaster struck the factory, Bhaila said he had called his factory manager, Mansoor, who was on the second floor of the building, to his office on the ground floor to discuss some issues. During that time, Abdul Majeed, the accountant of the factory, came to his office and informed him about the fire.
“All of us, Arshad, Mansoor and me, ran towards the warehouse, where the fire had erupted somewhere between its middle and back portions.”
No response from 165
He continued that flames had engulfed everything and the main switch was immediately shut down, assuming that a short circuit had caused the fire.
“Most of the people working there had started making efforts to extinguish the fire and attempts were made to contact the fire brigade on its emergency number 165, but no one picked up the phone.”
Later, he claimed, he had directed that all the workers should be evacuated from the premises.“Majeed personally went to the office of the fire station in SITE. Around 15 or 20 minutes later, a police van arrived at the factory and the policemen also tried to contact the fire brigade on 165.”
Bhaila also contradicted the fire brigade chief’s claim that the fire tenders had reached the factory within 15 or 20 minutes. He said the first fire tender had arrived one and half hours late and even then, the firemen kept standing at the main gate instead of trying to douse the blaze.
“Sometime later, another fire tender arrived. The firemen were requested to bring the fire tenders close to the point where the fire had erupted, but they told us to let them work in their own way.”
He claimed that the fire tenders were parked at the main gate and were short of water. “I was constantly persuading the firemen to bring the snorkel, but they didn’t. My cell phone record can prove all the calls I had made.”
He also snubbed the SITE managing director’s statement that the fire tenders brought water from the SITE pumping station.
“The firemen fetched water all the way from Sakhi Hasan, as it was not available at the SITE fire station.”
Bhaila refuted the claims of some witnesses that the factory’s gates were locked. “All the gates were open. They can’t be locked in any circumstances.” He also denied knowing whether or not it was a salary day at the factory.
He said there were emergency lights available on each floor and showed photos to the tribunal chief to prove it.
When the tribunal chief asked him why the fire extinguishers present at the factory used for breaking windows instead of dousing the blaze, Bhaila replied that the fire extinguishers were in a working condition and all safety steps possible were taken.
Responding to the query as to why the machines in the warehouse were not affected by the blaze, Bhaila said they were fireproof. However, he was unable to explain why the jeans there also remained undamaged.
He was also unable to reply as to why the first floor had remained intact. “I am not allowed to visit the factory, and that’s why I can’t explain these things.”Answering a question, Bhaila said an enzyme was used for manufacturing denim.
When asked if inflammable materials were used at the factory, Bhaila, who had earlier introduced himself as a chemical engineer, replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
Alvi recalled that an expert had told the tribunal that the chemicals used at garment factories were so strong that they could burn the skin if touched.
“I am not expert, but can you explain why a strong smell persists at the factory even today?” asked the tribunal head. “There was no inflammable or explosive material there,” replied the owner. However, Bhaila hastened to add that even if inflammable chemicals were used at the factory, they were not supposed to be where the fire had erupted.
Alvi told him that explosive material was “something else”, and the cause behind the fire at the factory was still a mystery.
When the tribunal head asked if the factory owner would be willing to bear the expenditure of inviting independent experts to determine the cause of the fire, Qazi Ashraf, Bhaila’s lawyer, responded that such questions were beyond the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
Bhaila’s other lawyer, Amir Mansoob Qureshi, informed the tribunal that the factory’s products had been sent to a US-based firm, which had issued a report declaring that they met the required standards. Qureshi then submitted a copy of the report to the tribunal.
Bhaila told the tribunal that he did not know whether or not his factory was registered under the industries act. He also said he was unaware about the whereabouts of Mansoor.
Qureshi said eight employees of the factory were in police custody for eight days and being harassed. “If police do their job honestly, things will be clear.”
Bankrupt and devastated
Bhaila said he and members of the management were present outside the factory till 11 or 12pm, and had left when the relatives of the victims had arrived there and a law and order problem was brewing.
“I can’t speculate what was the cause behind so many deaths at the factory,” said an emotional Bhaila. “It was my workers whose hard work has given me everything. I feel sad that I cannot even meet their relatives.”
Bhaila said he was bankrupt and his accounts had been frozen. “We are devastated.”Qureshi explained that his client and his family were under pressure, their passports and accounts had been frozen and they could not even visit their factory.The tribunal head said he could arrange their visit to the factory if they wanted.
Earlier, Bhaila informed the tribunal that his factory, Ali Enterprises, was set up in 1971. He had bought it in 1998 and was its sole owner. He started producing jeans and trousers there and his customers were European.
An international inspection body had given certificate, SA8000 Wrap, to his factory on August 20, 2012. “The inspection was conducted by an Italian firm RINA.” A copy of the certificate was handed over to the tribunal.
Sharif, an employee of the factory who had survived the fire, told the tribunal that he and his father were working on the second floor of the building when the lights went off followed by two explosions.
“There was darkness everywhere and everyone was asking about what had happened. Later, the room was filled with gas and the workers started falling unconscious.
There was an open window through which I helped my father and three women to escape. Then I jumped out of it, but fell unconscious due to the gas.”
Much to the surprise of the tribunal, Sharif revealed that a fire had broken out at the factory at around 11am on the same day.
Responding to a query posed by Additional Home Secretary Khalil Rehman Sheikh, who is assisting the tribunal, Sharif said he had not seen the fire himself, but had heard others saying that it had erupted in the building in the morning and was extinguished within 10 minutes.
The tribunal head observed that this information was significant if found to be true and decided to summon more witnesses to verify it.
“If there was a fire in the morning and it was not properly extinguished, it might have triggered the blaze in the evening.”
Rehana Yasmeen, who is representing the labour union, promised to produce more witnesses before the tribunal on Tuesday (today).
Another employee, Muhammad Essa, said fires had broken out at the factory thrice in the past, but none of them were as massive as the one on September 11.
“There was a ladder in the warehouse, but as the fire had engulfed that place, the workers were unable to get it.”