Two fires. No exits. Hundreds dead. Tragedy strikes at Pakistani factories

Owners reportedly on the run after fatal blazes in Karachi and Lahore beg questions over safety standards
  • @AndrewBuncombe

More than 300 people were killed in fires that tore through separate factories in Pakistan, raising questions about inadequate safety checks and rampant corruption in the country.

The death toll was last night expected to rise as bodies continued to be recovered from the destroyed buildings.

In a still-smouldering garment factory in Karachi, the country's commercial hub and the capital of Sindh province, at least 289 people died after a fire broke out on Tuesday night and continued for many hours. Earlier, at least 25 people were killed in a blaze at a shoe factory in the city of Lahore. In both cases, there were either no safety exits or else such routes were blocked.

Last night, as the authorities in Sindh province ordered an immediate inspection of all factories and industrial plants, experts said Pakistan repeatedly suffered from failing to regulate and carry out inspections of such premises. Francesco D'Ovidio, country director of the International Labour Organisation, a UN body, told The Independent there had not been regular industrial inspections for the last 10 years. He said the province of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, had recently introduced new legislation but that it had not yet come into effect. He said other provincial governments needed to follow the example of Punjab.

"Many factories are scattered, many are not registered," he added. "The country has so few industrial inspectors."

As rescue workers continued to remove the bodies of the dead from the debris, reports suggested that the owners of the Karachi factory had fled and were being hunted by police. Many of those who perished apparently died from suffocation.

One employee, Mohammad Pervez, whose cousin also works at the factory and who is currently missing, claimed the owners did nothing to ensure the safety of workers and that there were no emergency exits. Holding up a photograph of his cousin, he told Reuters: "The owners were more concerned with safeguarding the garments in the factory than the workers. If there were no metal grilles on the windows a lot of people would have been saved. The factory was overflowing with garments and fabrics. Whoever complained was fired."

The cause of the fires was not immediately known but in a country racked by persistent power shortages and where businesses are required to generate their own energy if they are to operate, speculation turned to the possibility of a diesel generator setting alight.

Reports suggested that an initial government inspection of the site of the fire in Lahore had found that emergency exits were blocked and that this had added to the death toll.

But whatever caused the fires the aftermath was clear and shocking. Sobbing relatives gathered in hospitals and morgues as more and more bodies were brought in. Those who had lost loved ones turned their anger to the authorities and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari. In one facility, 30 bodies burnt beyond recognition had been laid out as workers complained they were running out of space. Workers said the bodies would have to be subsequently identified using DNA tests.

Factory worker Liaqat Hussain told Reuters that as the fire tore through the facility, employees had no means of getting out. "Within two minutes there was fire in the entire factory," he said. "The gate was closed. There was no access to get out, we were trapped inside."