289 killed in Karachi garment unit fire
DPA & AFP
ISLAMABAD A DEVASTATING fire at a garment factory in Pakistan’s commercial hub of Karachi overnight killed at least 289 people, authorities said on Wednesday, as the deadly blaze raised fresh concerns about workplace safety.
Emergency services kept battling the flames and pulling out bodies throughout the day, but the death toll increased sharply as rescuers gained access to the basement of the Ali Enterprises production unit in the SITE industrial neighbourhood.
The factory produced readymade garments for local and Western markets. “Rescue teams have recovered 289 bodies, but fear finding many more in the basement,” said Roshan Ali Shaikh, the city’s top administration official.
“Intense heat and smoke is preventing recovery efforts.” Rescuers’ operation also slowed down after experts warned that the building could collapse, as its structure had been weakened by the inferno - one of the deadliest in Pakistan’s 65-year history.
Authorities attributed the high number of casualties to a lack of emergency exits. More than 100 workers escaped from the multi-storey building, several with broken limbs after they jumped out of windows.
Officials said scores more moved to the basement, where they died of smoke inhalation. Witnesses and relatives of the victims lined up across from the gutted building and told local media outlets that the victims’ cries for help could be heard for several hours after the fire erupted on Tuesday evening.
One of the witnesses told the Samaa news channel that some trapped workers managed to reach windows, but could not get out because of metal grills on those windows.
Doctors at Karachi’s major state-run hospitals reported struggling as emergency wards and mortuaries filled with casualties. Seemi Jamali, head of Jinnah hospital, said that many bodies were charred beyond recognition.
Karachi police were searching the city for the factory’s owners, who have been barred from leaving the country. City authorities were criticised for an alleged failure to ensure safety standards in industrial units.
Officials acknowledged that the factory had no industrial firefighting system, saying a review of safety standards at hundreds of production units in Karachi is being launched immediately.
“We are investigating as to why the factory owner did not conformed to rules about fire safety and building codes, including escape routes,” Rauf Siddiqui, regional minister for commerce and industries, told reporters outside the factory premises.
Ishratul Ibad, governor of Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, visited the accident site, promising a thorough inquiry.
Fire experts are investigating the cause of the blaze, which came hours after a similar fire gutted a plastics factory in Pakistan’s second-largest city, Lahore, killing 21 people.
Emergency officials said they believed the fire started when a generator inside the building malfunctioned and ignited chemicals.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said he had ordered an inquiry into both fires.
Officials said the factory in Karachi in particular was in poor condition and lacked emergency exits.
“The building has developed cracks and there is a danger it can collapse any time,” Shaikh told Pakistan’s private Geo TV channel. “Owners of the factory have been absconding and raids are being conducted for their arrest,” he said.
Officials said two brothers who owned the company have been barred from leaving the country. “Their names have been put on exit control list,” a senior government official said.
Irfan Moton, chairman of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE) said he believed there were 600 to 700 people in the factory when the fire broke out.