KARACHI: The death toll of the fire in a Karachi garment factory on Wednesday reached 298 with several dozen workers still unaccounted for and presumably dead in the basement that could not be penetrated by recovery teams till the filing of this report.
The factory fire that had claimed 40 lives on Tuesday night turned out to be the most deadly industrial incident in Pakistan’s history when it emerged on Wednesday that the death toll was far higher than what was initially estimated.
As heart-wrenching scenes were witnessed at hospitals and the site of the incident, it emerged that the inferno had also killed 17 women and seven children who had accompanied their mothers to the factory. A fireman was also killed during the rescue work but he could not be identified.
According to officials who visited the factory on Wednesday, the condition of the structure had deteriorated to such an extent that it could collapse at any moment while the intensity of the fire was such that it could not be controlled completely even on Wednesday night. “Although the fire is under control, the fire fighters are still trying to cope with the situation,” said one of the fire fighters. “A few portions of the factory are still in flames, which could be seen from outside the building.”
According to some workers who were not present when the incident occurred, salary was to be disbursed on Tuesday and around 2,000 workers were present when the deadly fire broke out. Some women workers, who had children with them, belonged to the stitching department and were also killed.
Sources said recovery teams had failed to search the basement of the factory as it was impenetrable. They said they expected to find more bodies from the basement and other locations where rescue workers could not enter due to the fire and dilapidated structure of the building.
The charred bodies were shifted with extra care to hospitals and the Edhi Morgue whereas the injured were being treated at three major hospitals – Civil Hospital (CH), Abbasi Shaheed Hospital (ASH) and Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC).
Medico-legal officers (MLOs) told The News that specimens from unidentified bodies were sent for DNA tests to indentify the victims. Though the health minister had announced an emergency at the JPMC, CH and ASH, only two MLOs were found working at the JPMC while others did not report and even the assistant police surgeon of the hospital was also absent.
The sources said a number of bodies were badly charred while more than 65 other workers broke their bones after jumping out of windows to escape the flames. Many people died due to suffocation, medial experts said.
According to the Karachi Fire Brigade Chief Ehtesham Salim, firemen would search every corner of the building despite limited resources so that nobody remained inside the factory. Dozens of fire engines were scrambled to the scene of the tragedy, he said, describing the factory structure as dangerous, poorly built, lacking emergency exits and having developed cracks in the walls, which was also putting rescue workers at risk, he added.
Salim termed the disaster as the biggest fire in Karachi’s histiory in terms of deaths in decades. Other experts described the tragedy as the worst industrial disaster to hit the country. “Unfortunately, there was no emergency exit available at the factory and little room was left for ventilation,” a fireman said.
The sources said that the cutting department of the factory was located in the basement, dyeing and looms were on the ground floor, the weaving/stitching department was on the first floor and packing and inspection were on the second floor.
Meanwhile, the owner of the factory called Ali Enterprises, Shahid Bela, was still at large and law-enforcement agencies had no clue about his whereabouts. All police raids to nab him remained fruitless while the provincial government put him on the Exit Control List. Bela and three other persons associated with the three-storey garment factory situated on the Hub River Road in Baldia Town in SITE B Police Station jurisdiction have been declared absconders.
The police in their initial report claimed that the fire might have occurred due to some fault in the standby electricity generator of the factory. Commissioner Karachi Roshan Ali Sheikh said that the investigation report of the incident would be completed in three days after which the actual cause of the fire could be revealed.
The incident has once again raised fresh concerns about safety at workplaces and also captured the attention of the president, the Sindh High Court and other government officials and departments as well as the local and international media.
INP adds from Islamabad: Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Wednesday said the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was probing the Karachi and Lahore fires to find out if there was any link with terrorism. Talking to media persons outside the Parliament House, he said that the involvement of terrorists could not be overlooked.
Responding to a question regarding missing persons, Malik said 109 complaints in this connection were sent to the UN and the mission was visiting Pakistan on the invitation of the Foreign Office. He said the UN mission had not arrived to undertake an investigation but just to get information. “We will inform the mission about missing persons, some of whom are earning livelihoods in foreign countries.”
Malik said that during his upcoming visit he would raise the issue of Dr Aafia Siddiqi on a priority basis. He said that New Delhi would be consulted if the Pakistani Hindu devotees staying in India didn’t return at the stipulated time.
Commenting on Dr Shakil Afridi’s interview with Fox News, the interior minister said it seemed to be faked, as the accused was in jail and foreign media could not approach him.
Our correspondent adds from Islamabad: President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday expressed grave concern over the rising toll in the fire incident. Senator Farhatullah Babar, spokesperson to the president, said the president had called for a report on fire incidents in Karachi and Lahore from the governors of the two provinces.
Expressing his deep grief and sorrow over the loss of precious lives, the president condoled with the bereaved families and directed the authorities concerned to ensure that the best medical assistance was provided to the affected people.
Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf on Wednesday telephoned Punjab Governor Sardar Latif Khosa and Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif from China and expressed grief and shock over the tragic fire incident in Lahore. He also called Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad to learn about the latest situation regarding the Karachi factory fire.
The prime minister inquired about the tragic incidents and conveyed his heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the victim families. He asked the governors and chief minister to extend all-out assistance and cooperation to the people affected by the tragedies. He directed the authorities to provide the best medical treatment to the inquired.
Meanwhile, Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid President Senator Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain also expressed deep sorrow and grief over the loss of lives in the Karachi and Lahore factories. In a message from abroad, he expressed heartfelt sympathies with the bereaved families and said there could be no substitute for their departed dear ones. He urged the administration to make immediate payment of adequate compensation to them.
Commenting on reports of the growing number of deaths following factory fires in Karachi and Lahore, British Foreign Office Senior Minister of State Baroness Warsi said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the tragic loss of life caused by devastating factory fires in Karachi and Lahore and to hear that so many of the victims were children. I send my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of all the victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
Our correspondent adds from Lahore: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, Vice Chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi, President Javed Hashmi, Secretary General Dr Arif Alvi and Information Secretary Shafqat Mahmood expressed profound grief over the loss of innocent lives in the Karachi and Lahore fires. They condoled with the families of the victims and said the incidents needed serious investigation.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also demanded the immediate attention of the government to ensure safe working conditions for workers in the wake of the deadly factory fires in Karachi and Lahore.