Factory Fire Kills Hundreds in Pakistan

Fareed Khan / AP Photo

More than 300 people are reported dead, and casualties are expected to rise as rescue workers examine the burnt husk of a garment factory in Pakistan’s industrial hub of Karachi, which was still smoldering on Wednesday, 24 hours after the worst industrial disaster the country has seen in decades.

On Tuesday evening, reportedly around 6:30 p.m., a fire broke out in a four-story garment factory owned by Ali Enterprises in an industrial part of the city known as SITE. Initially a minor blaze, the conflagration quickly spun out of control and was classified as category 3 by local firefighters—the highest and most dangerous type—prompting the deployment of all available fire engines and staff, including those belonging to civil defense authorities and the Navy.

Lack of proper emergency exits—one firefighter has described the building as a “box”—and barred windows meant that most people were trapped within the building with no means of escape. The few who managed to break the windows or reach the roof were forced to jump. The majority of injuries, including broken limbs and second- and third-degree burns, were a result of such attempts, according to local hospital authorities.

Many among the dead were workers trapped in the building’s basement. Ehtisham-ud-Din, the chief fire officer of Karachi, told journalists that with all exits blocked, most had died due to suffocation and excessive smoke inhalation. The basement of the building, which is now flooded due to the firefighting efforts, is believed to contain at least 50 more bodies. The fire officer said the bodies would be recovered once the water had been drained.

Factory workers told journalists that they manufactured underwear and plastics in two separate sections of the factory. The building operated 24 hours a day, with staff of approximately 500 in each of its three shifts. At the time of the fire, there were up to 500 people within the building, of whom 310 were confirmed dead, according to police chief Manzoor Mughal, who is heading an inquiry into the blaze.

Earlier on Tuesday, another fire razed a shoe factory in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, leaving at least 25 dead and 14 injured. Taken together, the two fires highlighted growing concerns that factory owners are bribing government officials to either ignore safety guidelines or bypass them in favor of utilizing the maximum space allotted for employees and work.

“This is purely government inefficiency and corruption,” Fazal Sherani, the president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, told The Daily Beast. “Government employees allocate licenses to these factories without considering proper safety routes or factoring in total employees in a building.”

According to government officials, a faulty electricity generator caused the fire in Lahore. The reasons for the fire in Karachi are under investigation, and the government has said a report will be finalized within three days. A preliminary report has already been submitted to the provincial government.

By law, all factories in the country must have emergency exits, provide preparedness training, and have in place some sort of early warning system. The garment factory in Karachi is reported to have none of these provisions. Investigators told journalists on the site that the building construction appeared flimsy; it had started to develop cracks in the brickwork, and the structure was in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

Already the death toll in Karachi has prompted the government to launch an inquiry into the owners of the garment factory in Karachi. Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon told reporters that their names had been placed on the exit control list. Sindh province Gov. Dr. Ishrat-ul-Ibad announced that $5,288 will be provided for each of the victims’ families, and assured them that justice would be served.

The Sindh High Court also took notice of the incident and has issued notices to all stakeholders with hearings expected to begin from tomorrow. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who is currently on a tour of neighboring China, “expressed shock and grief” and urged the authorities concerned to provide the best possible treatment to the victims of the fire.