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May 10, 2019

Scarred by Jauhar superstore blaze, residents demand compensation

Karachi

May 10, 2019


Nasreen, 58, sits in a wheelchair outside Darus Salam Prime Apartment gasping with pain. Placed next to her are a few suitcases, bags full of clothes and an oxygen cylinder through which she is intubated.

“It was a terrible Tuesday morning for us, when the fire broke out in the Bin Hashim Pharmacy & Supermarket,” said her son Dr Ishtiaq sitting next to her. The superstore is located on the ground floor of the multi-storey residential building, near Munawar Chowrangi in Gulistan-e-Jauhar’s Block 14.

The performance of the city’s building control authorities came to light, once again, after the incident, which trapped around 40 families — including the store’s staff — inside the building, with no fire extinguishing system or emergency exits.

The basement, where the fire had broken out and which was turned into a warehouse by the builder and the supermarket management, was actually the parking space, according to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation’s (KMC) fire officer. The store has also encroached on the service road by erecting hurdles on it and converting it into a parking space for their employees and customers.

Luckily, there wasn’t any casualty and the residents were brought outside the building safely with the support of the neighbours, Rangers, Edhi Foundation staff and KMC’s fire staff.

The façade of the building is charred black. The store’s labourers are pulling out the burnt generators, clothes and other stuff from the basement. There’s a security guard standing at the entrance forbidding visitors and cameramen from taking photos or making videos.

Dr Ishtiaq’s family is relocating after the fire that took around 12 hours to douse. The cooling process ended at 1pm on Thursday, according to the KMC’s fire officer Muhammad Mobin. More than 40 families are residing in the building — all of them have to be relocated, as the electricity and gas supplies have been suspended.

The Rangers had to come and rescue Nasreen. “I couldn’t walk and I almost fainted inside my flat. Later, a few Rangers officials came inside, picked me up and rushed me outside, after which I was shifted to a hospital,” she recalled.

Tayyab Ali, 22, said: “We had to rush down. There was chaos. I banged on all the doors on my floor and yelled at everyone to go down immediately.” The exit passage was full of thick dark smoke and the residents could hardly breathe. “It’s no less than a miracle to have no casualty in the fire incident,” he said.

He is gathering his valuables and clothes from his flat. “Look at the structure. It’s tilted now. There are cracks in the wall. I don’t think the building is safe to live anymore,” he said while carrying a heavy suitcase towards his car parked outside the building.

No emergency exits

There were no emergency exits inside the building, according to Mobin. “The basement was completely packed, with no openings at all but a three-foot wide entrance,” he said, explaining that since there wasn’t any space for them to enter, it took them four hours to demolish the side walls and make a passage for the smoke to vent out.

The basement itself was 10 feet high and was crammed full of grocery items for Ramazan and Eid. Eight fire engines and two snorkels of the KMC and three fire tenders of the Pakistan Navy along with the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board’s water tankers participated in the firefighting operation.

The laws

The Karachi Building & Town Planning Regulations 2002 mention the necessary fire resistance and fire precautions for buildings, according to which all ground-plus-three buildings should have standpipe systems, sprinkler systems and proper exits — none of which were installed inside the building in question.

At the time of construction, the building control authorities should examine the fire precautionary measures inside buildings. The Sindh Building Control Authority’s (SBCA) parking by-laws clearly state that for every 800 square-feet of floor area of retail shopping, a minimum of one motor vehicle parking should be provided inside the building.

Since there are several municipal bodies working in the city, the by-laws of the buildings are different. This particular building, according to SBCA director of Gulshan-I zone Waqar Memon, was in the jurisdiction of the Cantonment Board Faisal (CBF), whose building by-laws also talk about parking and safety provisions in supermarkets and residential buildings. However, no CBF official was available for comment.

According to the vice-president of the building’s union, Haider Rizvi, when they purchased their flat some five years ago, the builder Akram Ghori made it clear to them that the basement belonged to him (Ghori) and they would have to park their cars outside the building.

“Recently, another building was constructed nearby that was connected to the supermarket from the inside,” another resident Rija Muneeb revealed, saying that even after the extension, no parking facility was provided to the residents or shoppers. When Bin Hashim Pharmacy & Supermarket manager Abdul Rehman Jumani was contacted, he refused to comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, Rizvi demanded the store’s builders and management to renovate the damaged building. “They also need to make sure that no such incident takes place again; they have to provide proper fire extinguishing and ventilation system.”

The residents of the building staged a protest on Wednesday and Thursday by blocking the road. Rizvi said that no government official paid them a visit. They want East Deputy Commissioner Ahmed Ali to look into the matter, but he isn’t receiving their calls. When The News tried contacting him, he didn’t respond.

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