Factory fires kill more than 300 in Karachi and Lahore

Double disaster in Pakistan's two largest cities prompts calls for an overhaul of poor industrial safety standards and construction techniques

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 3:21am


More than 310 people have perished in fires that gutted factories in Pakistan's two largest cities, in tragedies that prompted calls for an overhaul of poor industrial safety standards, officials said yesterday.

At least 280 people died at a garment factory in Karachi, in the worst blaze in decades to hit Pakistan's biggest city, just hours after 21 died at a shoe factory in Lahore, close to the Indian border.

Dozens of others were hurt in Karachi as they jumped out of windows from the four-storey building to escape the blaze that began on Tuesday evening in a bid to save their lives, as sobbing relatives of trapped workers scuffled with police overnight.

"The death toll is 289. This is not final - the search for more bodies continues," the city's top administration official, Karachi Roshan Shaikh, said as more victims were recovered.

Karachi fire chief Ehtesham Salim said rescuers were finding large groups of bodies on the lower floors of the factory.

"Our firefighters are finding bodies in greater numbers from the lower floors of the factory," he said.

"We didn't find bodies in ones or two's, but in the dozens, which is why the death toll is increasing so alarmingly."

Salim said the fire probably originated on the ground floor, giving those workers in the basement and on that level less time to escape.

A firefighter at the scene, Numan Noor, said the reason most of the victims died was because the main escape route was blocked.

"The people went to the rear side of the building but there was no access, so we had to make forceful entries and ... rescue the people," said Noor.

Firefighters broke holes in the factory's brick walls to reach victims inside.

Abdus Salam, a doctor at Karachi's Civil Hospital, said at least 65 workers suffered broken bones after jumping out of windows.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he had ordered an inquiry into both fires, as officials said the factory in Karachi in particular had been flimsily built, lacked emergency exits and had developed cracks in the walls.

"It was packed like a box with little room left for ventilation. There were no emergency exits," Salim said.

According to workers, the factory produced underwear and plastic utensils.

Salim said the disaster was Karachi's "biggest fire in terms of deaths in decades".

In January 2009, 40 people were killed, more than half of them children, when a fire engulfed dozens of wooden homes in Karachi's impoverished Baldia neighbourhood.

Noman Ahmed, from the NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, said few industries and businesses implement the law on safety and fire exits, finding it easy to avoid because of the lack of effective monitoring.

"Most of our shopping centres and markets too have no safety mechanism, which the authorities should review seriously, otherwise it could cause graver tragedies in future," he said.

Mohammad Saleem, 32, who broke a leg after jumping out of the second floor, said he and his colleagues were hard at work late on Tuesday.

"It was terrible. Suddenly the entire floor filled with fire and smoke and the heat was so intense that we rushed towards the windows, broke its steel grille and glass and jumped out," he said.

"It was extremely painful. I saw many people jumping out of windows and crying in pain for help."

Around 150 employees were working at the time in one of the factory's three round-the-clock shifts, Saleem said.

Officials said the cause of the fire was unknown, but Rauf Siddiqi, the industry minister for the southern province of Sindh of which Karachi is the capital, said the owner was under investigation for negligence.

"We have ordered an inquiry into how the fire erupted and why proper emergency exits were not provided at the factory so workers could escape," Siddiqi said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press