The catastrophic fire at Hafeez Centre has proved yet again that all concerned departments of the city district government such as the LDA, MCL and LCB are ‘helpless’ in ensuring compliance of building bylaws and safety codes
Flouting of building bylaws and safety codes with impunity, both in private residences and commercial plazas, can lead to fires and cause irreparable losses. Unfortunately, all concerned departments of the city district government such as the Lahore Development Authority (LDA), Municipal Corporation of Lahore (MCL) and Lahore Cantonment Board (LCB) seem ‘helpless’ in ensuring compliance. The latest fire at Hafeez Centre is one glowing case in point.
Hafeez Centre is a prominent commercial hub, located in the heart of the city. It is well known especially for its thriving business of electronic appliances, computers and cell phones. Although no loss of life has been reported in the fire which erupted on the morning of last Sunday, hundreds of shops and offices are said to have been gutted and merchandise destroyed. It took the firefighters well over 36 hours to douse the flames.
The firefighting operation also caused damage to the stocks at the 5-floor plaza, especially those in the basement. While some of the merchandise was reduced to ashes some was damaged by water used to put down the fire.
Meanwhile, a 14-member fact-finding committee has been formed to investigate the causes of the incident. The committee has yet to submit its final report, but circumstantial evidence and shopkeepers’ accounts suggest that the presence of flammable material may be the reason.
According to initial reports, the inferno was caused by a short circuit. Out of the 134 shops on the fourth floor, 73 were affected while 61 were declared fine. Similarly, 73 out of 143 shops on the third floor were burnt down and 70 remained safe. Further, 57 of the 126 shops on the second floor were damaged and 69 were unhurt. Four out of the 100-odd shops on the 1st floor were affected and 96 were adjudged safe.
The report adds that the 186 shops on the ground floor and 215 in the basement are also safe.
Talking to TNS, the director general of Rescue 1122 Rizwan Nasir said, “It was thanks to the timely response of the rescue teams [of firefighters] that the blaze was overcome. If the rescue teams hadn’t arrived in time, the fire could have caused further devastation.
“The fire started on the second floor and moved upwards. Its course was also observed as spreading towards a nearby plaza. However, it was contained by the firefighters.”
Narrating the timeline, the DG said that the fire call was received at 6:11 am. “When the rescuers reached the spot, it [fire] had engulfed a large part of the building. So the [rescue] teams instantly called for backup.
“The blaze turned huge because the plaza had highly combustible materials,” he said. “On top of that, the building did not have a firefighting system in place. The standard building bylaws call for fire safety infrastructure for both residential and commercial places. It is clearly laid down in the National Building Code of Pakistan, Fire Safety Provision, 2016, that a number of safety measures must be observed. These guidelines include installing external steel cases and at least two fire doors that open outwards. Moreover, internal or external hydrants, exit signs, clearances of access areas, emergency lights, fire-resistant walls and several other precautions are mandatory for buildings such as the high-rises and shopping plazas.”
The Rescue 1122 DG lamented the fact that building bylaws and safety codes are being violated in the city. “It is the prime responsibility of city district administration, especially the LDA, the MCL and the Cantonment Board to ensure compliance with these guidelines in letter and spirit.”
He said that under the circumstances, fire incidents were not an anomaly.
Rana Waheed, a correspondent for a local TV channel, said that at least 500 shops (out of more than 1,000) and warehouses at Hafeez Centre had laptops, mobile phones and electronic goods worth millions of rupees.
He noted that the fire had started on the second floor of the building and gradually travelled to the fourth floor. “The blaze was so huge that the clouds of smoke could be seen from afar. Those trapped inside rushed towards the rooftop but the high flames soon reached there as well. Everyone was crying and screaming for help.”
Waheed said that the rescuers used fire snorkels and evacuated those trapped inside.
The president of Anjuman-i-Tajran Hafeez Center, Malik Kaleem said that as many as 100 shops had suffered losses worth Rs 20-25 million each, whereas 150 or so suffered had losses ranging between Rs 1.5 million and Rs 3 million.
According to initial reports, the inferno was caused by a short circuit. Out of the 134 shops on the fourth floor, 73 were affected while 61 were declared fine. Similarly, 73 out of 143 shops on the third floor were burnt down and 70 remained safe.
n the meantime, the city administration has sealed Hafeez Center, and declared it dangerous and unsafe for all activity. One of Lahore’s most popular — not to mention, the busiest — business centres was sealed on the recommendations of the 14-member committee constituted by the Punjab government to conduct a preliminary investigation into the horrific fire.
The decision was taken after the committee, which is composed of officials of city police and district management and a Rescue 1122 expert, took notice of the cracks in the multi-storey building that were developed due to the intensity of the inferno.
Sources privy to the record say the Civil Defence Lahore’s (CDL) district office had reported as many as nine violations to the Hafeez Center Market Association (HCMA) on August 18. However, the latter ignored the warnings, including those having to do with fire extinguishers.
Sources say that in a letter to the president and general secretary of the HCMA, the Civil Defence had pointed out that the water tank on the rooftop, an automatic fire alarm, a detection system, a fire point and the fire control room were all out of order.
It was also pointed out that full-face masks, which should have been stocked on every floor to avoid the effects of fire and smoke in the event of an emergency, were not available. Besides, the fire extinguishers on some floors were not in working condition.
The senior administration of the plaza association has been given 15 days to identify the defects and fix them. Structural engineers have been tasked with determining the usability of the building in seven days. It’s been decided that samples of all burnt portions would be sent to the building material testing laboratory.
The writer is a senior journalist and can be reached at [email protected]